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close this bookThe Courier N 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry reports
close this folderBelize
View the documentSurprising Belize
View the documentA history against the tide
View the documentGender language for black Amerindians
View the documentInterview with Prime Minister, Manuel Esquivel
View the documentInterview with opposition leader, George Price
View the document'The Queen's man'
View the documentStill images
View the documentEU-Belize cooperation - An end to isolation

Surprising Belize

The good thing about being as unknown as Belize is that this makes it very easy to keep a few surprises in reserve. Belize is certainly not stinting in its charms. To the traveller, this continental country feels like an island or an archipelago. Anyone preparing to land at Belize City Airport is first of all struck by the coral reef, which is the second largest in the world and which lines the entire coastline, forming a number of islands and myriad islets. He will have constantly before his eyes the spectacle of a country which always has associations of sand and coral lapped by water which is so clear that the shadows of aeroplane wings are seen on the seabed. Belize reveals itself in a succession of surprises.

Covering 22 000 square kiLomes, Belize is a small country but its population of 200000 gives it quite another dimension. It is easy to find on the map, just below the Yucatan Peninsula on the eastern coast of Central America. It is separated from Mexico in the North by the Rio Hondo, from which it got its earlier name of British Honduras. Guatemala is situated to the west and is separated by a straight line delineated by colonial surveyors. To the east, there is the Caribbean. Belize City is on the coast and legend has it that it is floating on the bottles of rum and logs of mahogany which are the reasons for its foundation. With 60 000 inhabitants, it is by far the largest built-up area in the country-essentially a very pretty small town with its feet in the water. It would not be going too far to call it a tropical Venice. And yet it is not the capital.

Nature's contribution

Tiny Belmopan has this privilege. It is certainly one of the smallest capitals in the world. Thirty-five years after its foundation, it still has fewer than 5000 inhabitants. Situated 80 kiLomes from Belize City in the foothills of the Mayas mountains, it is a garden city made up of official buildings. Those who work there, that is to say ministers and top civil servants, continue to live in Belize City or in some other colonial town such as the magnificent San Ignacio. Foreign diplomats have not chosen to settle in the small capital, apart from the British. The decision to move the capital was taken in the wake of Hurricane 'Jeannette' which ravaged Belize City and resulted in almost 300 deaths in 1955. The coastal town was held to be too vulnerable to tidal waves. In 1931, it suffered an even worse disaster in which 1000 people died.

Belize has a good road system. The network is composed of four main routes which take in all the important centres and construction of which is still supported by aid from the European Union. The question which quickly occurs to anyone who is starting to get to know this country is how can a territory, which is almost the same size as Belgium, be effectively occupied by just one sixtieth of the population of the latter. It is not an uncultivated country and the vast expanses of forest form a coherent geographical framework. The forest and Belize's wider environment, ranging from jaguars to rare ants, are a source of pride to the Belizeans. The appetite of the foreign companies engaged in exploiting the forests, especially from Malaysia, is, on the other hand, a source of concern for many of the inhabitants. Governments have long resisted encroachments of this kind but there are signs that things are changing. With its coral reef, Belize is also a renowned location for diving. Recent archaeological discoveries are increasingly turning it into one of the most important centres of Maya civilisation, if not the most important.

Other pleasant surprises offered by Belize are the well-established democratic system (elsewhere in the region, democracy is taking its first, halting steps), the relative economic prosperity, the good road infrastructure (relatively speaking) and the very good state of the telecommunications service, intensive use being made of portable telephones. Per capita income was $2000 in 1993, and the figure has remained stable in real terms in recent years. Economic growth has averaged 3% to 4% per annum over the past three years. In 1993, it was 3.8%, down from 5.3% in 1992, while inflation runs at about 1.5%- not a bad performance at a time of global recession. During the 1980s, growth rates in excess of 10% were recorded, with inflation averaging 2.5%. There are also other favourable indicators: an average life expectancy of 69.5 years, average school attendance of 4.6 years (1990 figure) and a 95% literacy rate. Belize comes 82nd (out of 173 countries) in the UNDP's Human Development Index.

A real country with real problems

The ongoing dispute with Guatemala, which one cannot avoid hearing about, soon shows the visitor, once he has finished marvelling at the splendours which first attract his attention, that Belize is a country like any other, with similar problems. This may perhaps come as the biggest surprise to those expecting a 'fairy-tale' country. At the moment, the main causes of concern stem from economic difficulties which lie at the root of the relatively high unemployment rate, especially in Belize City. The election of June 1993 saw the United Democratic Party (UDP) return to power, taking over the reins of government from the People's United Party (PUP). The incoming Prime Minister, Manuel Esquivel took the decision to support the Belize dollar, come what may. Having been aligned with the US dollar for some twenty years, the local currency is strong and is not subject to the kind of buffeting experienced by other Central and South American currencies. For ten years, the exchange rate has been maintained at B$2 = US$1 although there has been a depreciation of about 10% against the stronger European currencies which has caused some difficulties. Regarding the control of exchange rates, the arrangements that exist between Belize's Central Bank and the commercial banks are fairly representative of the pragmatic spirit which prevails. Officially, the Central Bank has authority in monetary affairs, but in actual practice it is the commercial banks which operate the policy, using the market as a reference point.

To take action against a high level of external and internal debt and a chronic balance of trade deficit, Prime Minister Esquivel decided to adopt a policy of restraint which provoked public discontent. The government ascribes responsibility for the economic problems to the over-optimistic forecasts of the previous administration which, it says, overestimated income and underestimated expenditure. The opposition, for its part, criticises 'ill-considered' promises made by the current team during the elections. This is a claim backed by a number of other commentators.

Stuart Khrone, a journalist and a director of Great Belize Productions, which runs a private television channel offering news and reports, is stinging in his criticism of the 'U-turns' of those in power.

An economy 'high' on oranges

The Prime Minister is keen on less government involvement in the economy, a policy first adopted by his predecessor who sold off the Banana Control Board and Belize Telecommunications Limited and partially privatised Belize Electricity Limited. The state currently controls only the major public authorities and employs 14.5% of the workforce.

Belize's economy is based essentially on fishing (mainly lobsters), and agricultural production, especially of citrus fruits, bananas and sugar. The decision to diversify agriculture in favour of citrus production was taken in the 1980s by the first Esquivel government. The central region of the country (Orange Walk), which was chosen for the experiment, is currently planted, as far as the eye can see, with citrus fruit trees of all kinds, but with orange trees predominating. Some people have expressed concern that this policy has increased Us influence. When the decision to focus on citrus products was made, Coca Cola purchased an option on 350 000 hectares, and the country benefited from an $80m investment by the company.

Citrus production gave a real fillip to the country's economy. At first, the sector was largely operated by small producers, but the latifundia are now becoming increasingly dominant. Belize exports most of its citrus fruit to the United States in the form of concentrates. America is a useful market, as these products enjoy the benefits of exemption from import duty under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) instituted several years ago by the Reagan administration.

Belize has approved a large number of investments in the agriculture sector over the past few years, especially in banana production. The country has made full use of the provisions of the Lomonvention allowing free access of many Belizean products to the European market, in addition to penetrating the American market in a number of areas. But there are constraints. Export markets for agricultural products are generally governed by quotas (this is the case for bananas, sugar, citrus fruits) and for practical reasons (the local market is too small) most of the output has to be exported.

The new arrangements governing banana imports into the EU have also hit the country hard. Paradoxically, much of the investment in this sector has been made with assistance either from the Union, through the EDF and the European Investment Bank, or from the UK. With a quota of 40 000 tonnes in the KU, a figure which is to be increased slightly, Belize is forced to limit its production, which currently amounts to 90 000t, although capacity is much higher than this. Clearly, the economy suffers from a problem of scale. Belize's small size and population compel it to concentrate on a small number of products, making it very vulnerable to external factors. Another example of the fragile nature of the position is provided by the export of fabrics to the USA. This market has collapsed as a result of competition from Asian products. This has led to renewed agricultural diversification in favour of fruits such as papaya, and rice.

Virgin territory

Belize's economy has a number of 'virgin' areas which have not yet been brought on stream. Despite its outstanding beauty, the country sees few visitors other than diving enthusiasts, a few researchers who are interested in Mayan sites and an even smaller number of so-called ecotourists. Indeed, many Mayan sites are still completely unexplored. Those that have been opened up attract groups coming mainly from North America and Europe. However, politicians and cultural authorities are very cautious about the restoration of structures. They are inclined to favour limiting restoration to a few facades of monuments and a few sites, while public access will be strictly limited. In most cases, the absence of facilities and access routes is expected to deter tourists, allowing researchers to continue their work in peace.

To ecotourists, Belize can offer a vast expanse of virgin forest which is rich in species of rare trees and is intersected by slow-moving rivers broken up by waterfalls and inhabited by a very varied fauna. The Keys (islands) are just as suitable for lazing around as the Caribbean countries and you do not have to be a diver to appreciate the shallow emerald-green water lapping against the shelves formed by the coral reef. But the infrastructure does not yet match nature's splendours. Outside the larger Keys, where the infrastructure has been developing very rapidly, there is a shortage of hotel rooms and many of those that are available leave a lot be desired in comfort terms. This is clearly something that needs to be rectified. Most of the roads are in a good condition and internal air links are provided by small and apparently well-maintained private aircraft offering competitive prices. By contrast, international air links are infrequent and they often entail inconvenient detours and stopovers. Because of the coral reef, the sea is not deep, and this make it difficult to deal with large cargo vessels. This has a negative effect on trade (as well as tourism). For example, bananas have to be taken to deep-water ports in Honduras for transshipment-with all that this entails in terms of transport and storage costs.

Fishing is underexploited and is mainly concentrated within the passage bounded by the reef. Expensive equipment and well-trained workers would be needed to exploit the fishing resources beyond this limit. A number of joint-venture projects with foreign shipowners are currently being studied. As regards forestry resources, it is mainly primary products, such as boards, that are being produced. Production of semifinished products such as plywood or finished items such as furniture is very limited. On the energy side, hydroelectricity could be a significant power source and the government is facing strong criticism for having abandoned a project in this sector which had been set up by the previous administration. Oil prospecting has not yielded much, but in a country which is marked by the beauty and purity of its natural resources, it is difficult to say whether this is a good thing or not.

'Belize breeze': a lot less benign than it sounds

There is certainly no cause for rejoicing over the fact that there were 1500 drug-related crimes in 1994 alone, according to statistics released by the legal authorities. Even if most of these cases involved no bloodshed, the figure is worryingly high for a country of only 200 000 inhabitants. All the leading personalities whom the Courier interviewed saw drugs and the insecurity engendered by them as the curse of the country. Prees reports are revealing. Not a day passes without stories from the 'front' in this undeclared war between the forces of law and order and the traffickers. Conversations are peppered with names of gang leaders who claim to be untouchable. Belize may be small but the police raids described in the press sometimes sound like only slightly scaled-down versions of operations from Apocalypse Now. In January, a night-time air and sea operation was carried out jointly by the Crime Squad of the Belize Police, the Belize Defence Forces, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and British forces. Helicopters and boats all converged on an estate where no less than 650 kilogrammes of cocaine was discovered. The wholesale value of this huge haul was estimated at $40 million. Also seized were chemicals used to camouflage the smell of the drug, weapons and technical equipment. The owner of the estate had judiciously decided to leave Belize and a follow-up operation involving four countries was required. The announcement in the same article, of a seizure of 120 kilogrammes of cocaine, in the possession of Belizeans, sounds insignificant by comparison. Drug trafficking and production are increasing, as is consumption. The need to use so many resources to track down so few offenders reveals the scale of the challenge. For the traffickers, a state of lawlessness is desirable-for the authorities, it is very costly to prevent. In the areas close to the Mexican border, stories are told of executions having been ordered, with detailed corroboration. The high quality of the roads, in this region in particular, makes them suitable for the landing of small aircraft. Aware of this, the British forces placed stakes strategically along the roads prior to their departure. Removing them became a popular pastime of the 'small fry' in the drugs trade, and the stakes have all now disappeared.

In 1983, at the instigation the United States DEA, a massive programme was launched involving the destruction of marijuana plantations using herbicides (paraquat). Unfortunately such operations are not selective. Marijuana is seldom cultivated as a single crop and other products are destroyed at the same time. The result of the programme was that honest farmers also suffered losses although hundreds of traffickers were arrested. It was at about this time that Belize became Latin America's third largest producer of marijuana. The 'Belize breeze' label is said to be very much in demand among 'connoisseurs'.

Small and large-scale drug-related crime is on the increase and there are some unexpected alliances in this war between the State and the traffickers. One such example is the fact that one of the country's senior politicians also acts as lawyer to a number of major traffickers who currently are in prison. It should also be understood that marijuana cultivation is something of a smokescreen. The really big drug money comes from cocaine dealing, large quantities of which have been passed on from Belize to other countries over the last decade. Though the insecurity generated by drugs is regarded as a curse, many people accept that the circulation of large amounts of 'dirty' money helps the country's economy. This is thought to be the main reason for the prosperity of the area close to the Mexican border.

Ethnic diversity: advantages and disadvantages

Belize's multicultural society includes Creoles (people of black and white ancestry), Mayas, people of mixed Indian and white ancestry, Garifuna (black Indians) and Mennonites, who are of European origin and are members of a Christian sect living in a small community in the mountains. Chinese, Arabs and people of other nationalities should also be added to this fabric and the result is a wide variety of hues and textures. The last people to arrive, considerably upsetting the ethnic balance in the process, were the refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Several thousand Salvadoreans fled to Belize during the civil war in their country, while Guatemalans are still arriving, joining 60 000 of their compatriots (almost a third of the total population) already in the country. 60% of the population is Catholic and 30% adhere to one or other of the Protestant denominations. The remaining 10% include Bahai's, Muslims, Buddhists and others. It is a minor miracle, and another of Belize's surprises, that despite a certain degree of friction, which is inevitable, there is no implacable rivalry between the religious communities, and certainly no hatred. The reason for this is probably that the usual victims in such situations of racial mixing, that is to say the Amerindians and former slaves, became literate very early this century and have been able to acquire a certain social status.

The welcome extended to recent refugees can only be explained by reference to the hospitality and openness of spirit of this society, where people have few 'hangups'. Their contribution to the agricultural workforce, and especially to that part of it involved in growing citrus fruits, has proved very useful. On the other hand, these people are in a weak position. Wage reductions in the citrus fruit-and construction-sectors could prove to be a source of discord. The trade unions negotiate with employers on their behalf but take care not to highlight their position for fear of arousing hostility. Mainly based in the areas close to Guatemala and Mexico, the immigrants are becoming better integrated all the time. There are concerns about the number of immigrants involved in drug trafficking but here, too, there is no sign of the development of a xenophobia mania. Most Belizeans continue to believe that 'ethnic harmony' is not under threat. It is at a political level that problems may arise. Which side will the immigrants or Belizeans of Guatemalan origin take, if positions harden in the trial of diplomatic strength over the location of the frontier between the two countries ? The opening of a Guatemalan consulate close to the frontier, in the areas inhabited by a large number of citizens of that country, points to a desire to look after their interests. But many Belizeans say that they are not fooled by this apparent willingness to treat the matter on a diplomatic level.

Another good sign is the increasing degree of mixing among ethnic groups, both through marriage and in housing. A relatively short time ago, people originating from Mexico generally lived in the areas of Corozal and Orange Walk, Black and Mayan Indians occupied the South, while Creoles tended to be concentrated in Belize City. This division is still marked, but communication facilities and the melting pot created by state education have encouraged mixed marriages on the one hand and internal migration on the other.

The claims made by Guatemala have paradoxically created an opportunity for Belize, by encouraging integration. The aggression shown by Belize's western neighbour during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s seems to have led to greater national cohesion and even to a pride in being Belizean, helping to inculcate a desire for independence.