|The Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)|
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.
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.
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.
Although Belize's history is similar to that of several countries in Central America and the Caribbean, it is also full of the unexpected. The country gained its independence on 21 September 1981, remaining a member of the Commonwealth with the Queen as Head of State. It has a bicameral Parliament. The Senate's members are appointed by the government or co-opted by MPs with a guarantee that the opposition will be represented. The lower house is dominated by two parties which have traditionally alternated in power. This democratic interplay began well before independence. British forces remained in Belize until September last year, when the last units finally left the country. This withdrawal was accompanied by a promise that forces would be redeployed in the event of a threat to the sovereignty of Belize. Their presence had constituted a guarantee in this troubled area, particularly vis -is Guatemala which has always held that it had been deprived of territory in order to create the state of Belize. The British presence was also a source of income estimated at approximately 4% of GDP.
Independent in a colonial world
Let us go back in time. Between 2000 and 1000 BC, two million Mayas lived in Yucatan. At the beginning of the first millennium, the population of what now constitutes Belize was 750 000. Wheat plantations stretched as far as the eye could see. Extended towns and enormous religious centres appeared throughout the empire.
A thousand years ago, the Maya world collapsed. The arrival of the Spanish was followed by the disappearance of virtually all the indigenous population which fell victim to massacres and disease from outside. The survivors were concentrated in Guatemala. Campeachy wood (logwood) and mahogany invaded the land and took firm root in the vaults of ceremonial sites. For various reasons, the Spanish lost interest in Belize and the territory was abandoned. The English arrived at the end of the seventeenth century to exploit the Campeachy wood and, somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, the mahogany which had become an important commodity in Europe. This reawakened Spanish interest-the old reflex of the toy abandoned by the capricious child. They made five attempts to dislodge their adversaries, but all were unsuccessful. A treaty was signed, giving the British permission to exploit the forests, with the exceptions of commercial agricultural production and military construction in an area between the Hondo River (the Belize/Mexico border) and the Belize River which flows through Belize City. The British loggers became known as the 'Baymen, and they appear in an engraving which forms part of the Belize coat of arms. Shortly before the agreement was signed, the Baymen called upon the British government to come to their aid in the face of a Spanish threat but peace was restored shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, a British admiral sent to Belize overstepped the limits imposed in the agreement and, in 1765, promulgated an embryo constitution for the territory which had been allocated to the Baymen. This pseudo-independence lasted until 1862 when the population voted to become a colony. This period saw several reversals of fortune for the British. There was the loss of the American colonies in which Spain and France supported the American revolutionaries, while Spain went on to dismantle a number of British settlements, sending most of their occupants to Mexico or Cuba.
The 1847 Mexican revolution, begun by the Maya population, saw the first great flood of Mayan refugees arrive in Belize, alongside mestizo and even some Spanish refugees. The Belizean population doubled in a short space of time. This was also the period when sugar cane was introduced. Backed by popular demand, Belize approached London to ask for the status of a colony, and the request was duly granted in 1862. The colony was given the name British Honduras.
It was only after the Second World War that a big change in attitudes occurred. Many Belizeans had been recruited into the Allied armies and they resumed to the country with new ideas. The UK Government's unwise decision to devalue the Belize dollar in 1949 set the powder keg alight and the word 'independence' began to be heard.
An incongruous colony
From 1961 onwards, the British authorities acknowledged that the count down to the colony's independence had begun. Administrative autonomy was granted in 1964 although the tide of decolonisation taking place at that time did not reach this corner of the Caribbean. Belize had to wait until 1981 for full independence. The main reason for this was the fact that the British had no intention of handing the territory to Guatemala, which was threatening to invade.
In 1823, the United Provinces of Central America proclaimed their independence. Fifteen years later, the federation broke up into five states. One of these was Guatemala, which took the view that Belize ought to be returned to it since it had been recognised by the Spanish administration as forming part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Many historians believe, however, that under Spain, Belize had been linked to Yucatan. In any case, the Spanish were not in Belize before the independence of the Central American countries and had never occupied the territory. In 1860, influenced by the United States, a treaty between Britain and Guatemala was signed, recognising the current frontiers between the two territories. By way of compensation to Guatemala, a road and/or river route,
linking the Guatemalan capital to the Atlantic near Belize, was to be built by the two parties. Because this route was never constructed, Guatemala repudiated the treaty in 1940, 80 years after it was signed. According to their interpretation, the Treaty had not been a ratification of frontiers but an exchange or contract which had not been fulfilled. Thereafter, Guatemala regularly threatened its neighbour although, over time, its territorial claims became more modest. Ultimately, their demands came to be restricted to just a quarter of the territory but the dispute left Belize isolated for many years. The advent of civilian government in Guatemala did not solve the problem but at least it opened the way for progress. Jorge Serrano, Guatemala's second civilian President, recognised Belize in 1991 and established diplomatic relations. Only then was it possible for Belize to become a full member of the Organisation of American States (OAS). The country was now out of quarantine. Despite this, Guatemalan diplomats still occasionally demand the expulsion of Belize's delegates at international meetings. Guatemala has opened an embassy in Belize and there is a consulate in the zone where new Guatemalan immigrants live, but Belize's diplomatic mission in Tegucigalpa had to wait three years before it could open its doors. In 1993, the threat of a military takeover in Guatemala, just as the British were announcing the forthcoming departure of their troops, rekindled old fears. Fortunately, the new Guatemalan president, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, is a staunch defender of human rights. His government continues to demand land concessions, but the risk of an invasion has greatly diminished and, although the Belizeans still purport to be fearful of conquest by their neighbour, this is probably a continuing historical reflex rather than something founded on any realistic threat.
Central America has once again found the road to peace and attempts to play on national sentiment to conceal domestic difficulties are less likely nowadays. In any case, it is difficult to see how a country such as Belize, where American interests are so extensive, could fall victim to a show of force in the current climate. Moves are under way to find a diplomatic solution. Belize's long isolation made its participation in the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) very important even though, in economic terms, such membership has not always been to its advantage. It had, for example, to lower import duties to come into line with its partners, without the advantage of increased exports. Such was the price of diplomatic status.
At every international meeting on the defence of indigenous peoples, there are always some journalists who are surprised by the presence of black Amerindians. They have obviously never had the opportunity to meet Felicia Nunez. Although they might not recall everything they were told about the origins and history of this group, after one hour in her company, they would certainly have heard a great deal about it. What they would remember, without doubt, would be the warmth, passion, commitment and fighting spirit of this woman. They would learn that there are a considerable number of publications in Garifuna, including the Bible, books of poems, collections of songs and dictionaries, full of soldiers and folk heroes. This literature, crucially, forms the basis of the aspirations of a small population which has overcome fate despite the many attacks made on it.
Felicia Nunez is an employee of the Social Development Department. In her work, she helps underprivileged families cope with their day-to-day existence and enables them to meet their responsibilities. She deals particularly with women who have been left as head of the family and who are out of work, of which there are many in Dangriga and throughout the rest of the country. She acts as vocational adviser, teaching sewing to some and the rudiments of administrative organisation to others, and she also has a role as social assistant. She is a strong feminist and devotes her time fully to this, her professional work coinciding with the task she has set herself of improving the conditions of deprived women. When she is not with one of these women, she works in her small wooden colonial house, which is still sound despite the ravages of the humid climate. She is wholehearted in commitment to all of her activities but what really inspires her is speaking about the Garifuna people, recounting their history, defending their pride and speaking fighting words when she recalls their long suffering.
The Garifuna people, (the black Amerindians in Belize), are also to be found in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well as in their original land, the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. However, it is in Belize that their future is to be found. This is because they are relatively numerous there, numbering about fifteen thousand. They also represent a sizeable proportion of the country's population and have been relatively successful within the society and in organising themselves. Right or wrong, the Garifuna suspect the current government of being unsympathetic to their cause, seeing evidence of this in the fact that the monument to their people, erected under a previous government, together with the neighbouring land, (in principle an integral part of the monument), were the subject of a government real-estate operation in favour of the Creole population. They have condemned acts of vandalism against the monument and have sharp words about the apparent laxity in dealing with the perpetrators. They imply that enquiries made were not followed up.
Theodore Aranda, one of the main leaders of the Garifuna cause, and one of its most dynamic representatives at international meetings, was an influential minister in the previous government. In considering the merits of some of their complaints, one must, of course, take care to remain objective.
Gender in speech
It is not entirely correct even to speak of a 'Garifuna people'. The word 'Garifuna' refers only to the language, the inhabitants being Garinagu, a word derived from a Caribbean expression meaning 'manioc eater'. However, we will take the liberty of using the word 'Garifuna' since this is what appears in the press even in Belize. Language is currently the battle horse of those who defend the people's cause. The Garifuna Language Workshop has set itself the target, firstly, of reestablishing Garifuna as the mother tongue in the six Garifuna communities in Belize. At present, only one of these communities really speaks the language on a daily basis, although language-linked culture is still alive and well in the others. Secondly, the Workshop aims to promote it in other Garifuna communities abroad. 1995 is an important year for them, being the bicentenary of what they refer to as the assassination of the Chief of Chiefs, Joseph Chatoyer, founder of the first Caribbean republic on the island of Yuremein (the old name for Saint Vincent).
The earliest traces of the two Amerindian peoples who were to populate the Caribbean, the Arawaks and Caribs, date from the pre-Christian era. They first settled in the north of South America, along the Orinoco and Magdalena rivers. During the second century AD, the Arawaks migrated towards the Caribbean islands and principally towards the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico). In the 13th century, the Caribs used to invade islands in the south of the Archipelago, wiping out the male Arawaks and taking the women captive. The unions formed as a result of these abductions gave rise to the 'Caribbean/ Arawak' language, but, above all, to the bizarre phenomenon of the genderisation of the language. With the possible exception of Japanese, where male-female speech differentiation essentially is found in the accent, this is a unique phenomenon. Men and women speaking Garifuna are mutually intelligible but use different words and turns of phrase to denote the same meanings. Thus, for example, depending on whether the speaker is male or female, the word 'woman' is either 'wuri' or 'hiyaru', while the subject pronoun 'we' will be either 'amuru' or 'buguya'.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus put an end to the Carib raids to capture Arawak women, the people having, then, to concentrate their energy against the new enemy. As pacifists, the Arawaks and their descendants, the Tainos, were to disappear entirely. The much more bellicose Caribs survived, although in limited numbers. Having attacked the Caribs several times, up to the beginning of the 1 6th century, the Spanish subsequently left them in peace. The French also became discouraged and, in 1660, signed a treaty, acknowledged by the English, granting these indigenous populations perpetual sovereignty over the islands of Dominica and Saint Vincent. Shortly afterwards, the English reneged on the treaty and mercilessly hunted down the Caribs. This was to last for over a century, ending in the death of the Carib chief, Joseph Chatoyer. This episode sounded the death knell for the Carib presence in the islands which still bear their name.
'The last of the Mohicans'
A quarter of a century before the 1660 treaty, two Spanish vessels carrying slaves from Africa, principally from Nigeria, were shipwrecked on the shores of Yunumein (Saint Vincent). The prisoners who escaped were taken in by the Indians and ended up adopting their language and culture, retaining only a few religious practices and their music, together with the colour of their skin.
After the British victory in 1795, five thousand Caribs were deported to a small island off Honduras. Only two thousand survived the voyage to arrive at their destination. It is their descendants who are now to be found in Belize and the neighbouring countries, having moved to the mainland some years later. Today, there are probably about 300 000 of them worldwide. Their long suffering in recent years is marked, above all, by two huge massacres in Honduras, the more recent having occurred in 1937. It has principally been the benevolence of the Jesuits that has saved Garifuna culture. They were quick to begin teaching the new arrivals and, from the beginning of this century, they allowed members of the Indian community to instruct their own compatriots. It was one of these instructors who was to set up the first Caribbean cultural society in Central America, which began to crystallise Garifuna claims. In 1941, the 19th of November, which is the anniversary of the arrival of the Caribs in Belize, was made a Day of Celebration in the district of Stann Creek, where most of the people currently live. In 1977, the date was declared a national holiday. Currently, the Belize National Garifuna Council jealously monitors the community's interests. 'The last of the Mohicans' have survived.
'We need correct a situation that has gone terribly wrong. In the process, everybody will have to make sacrifices'
For the second time, Manuel Esquiver finds himself presiding over Belize's destiny following the victory of his UDP at the polls in July 1993. He first gained office in 1984 during the economic 'golden age' of this small Central American country. But things are different nowadays. Belize may still be in an enviable position relative to many of its neighbours in the region, if one considers the social indicators and the strength of its democratic system, but it has not been able to avoid the negative effects of the global economic crisis. This is not perhaps surprising given its dependence on its powerful neighbour, the USA, which was also recently battered by recession. Manuel Esquivel wants, at all costs, to maintain the value of the Belize dollar and has decided to 'roll back the frontiers of the state' This entails a dose of strong medicine which he must persuade his fellow citizens to swallow. Thus far, he has at least some results to show for his efforts in the form of a significant reduction in inflation.
Unfortunately, growing unemployment and the people's reduced purchasing power threaten to undermine what has been achieved. There is also the problem of public discontent prompted by the government's austerity policies, not to mention potentially destabilising disputes within the government itself. On top of all this, despite a general feeling of harmony among the different groups who make up Belize's population, discontent has emerged within the Garifuna (black Amerindian) community. Members of this ethnic group, who are well organised, are resolutely opposed to government policies which they regard as contrary to their interests. Another area of worry is the ongoing diplomatic dispute with Guatemala which concerns no less than the legitimacy of the Belize state itself.
Belize may not be the best known ACP country but this does not make it any the less interesting, as we discovered when we spoke to Prime Minister Esquivel. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed the above mentioned problems as well as some of the notable achievements of this relative haven of prosperity in the region.
· What are currently the main concerns of Belize and what are your most important goals ?
-Our main concerns are within the government itself. We are very concerned about the size of the government deficit so we are putting a lot of energy into finding ways of reducing and indeed eliminating it by next year. In that connection, we have several difficulties. In particular, our debt servicing has ballooned. This problem began last year and debt servicing will continue to be very high for at least the next two years. This is due to the fact that in the early 1990s, Belize entered into a number of credit arrangements with commercial banks. These are now having to be repaid and, as a result, debt servicing now absorbs about 20% of our recurrent revenue.
· So you consider that these problems result from actions of the previous government ?
-As regards these commercial loans. We try to confine our commitments to official loans for obvious reasons, but there was a departure from this approach. The result is a new stock of commercial debt that has caused our debt servicing to increase by about 30%. That will remain the case for the next two or three years.
Some newspapers and people in the opposition argue that the economic situation was good when you took over but now the economy is in decline. What is your answer to that accusation ?
-I would say that the situation appeared to be good at the time because there was a lot of government spending. But this was creating a deficit which was unsustainable. At the outset, that deficit was sustained by privatisation. Shares in the telephone and electricity companies were sold off. But obviously, that kind of financing cannot sustain a deficit in the longer term. It can only alleviate the problem from year to year. So the deficit has built up. There were also commitments made to the unions representing the teachers and the public service to increase salaries at a rate of 12.5 % per annum over a three-year period. This has meant that our wage bill now exceeds 50% of government revenue. When you put the wage bill and debt servicing together, you find that more than 70% of the state's income is being absorbed. This has created a tremendous problem with cash flow and with financing the deficit that has built up.
What we have done is severely to reduce government capital expenditure to try to restrain the growth of the deficit. Additionally, we are trying to find ways of restraining the growth in the wages bill. In practice, this means we are not able to meet all the heavy commitments entered into by the previous government. We provided half of those payments in 1994. The policy also involves proposing to the unions at this time that there should be a freeze on wages for the next two years.
The private sector is performing very well. Our exports are up. Because of various monetary measures, our imports have been reduced slightly, so we have reduced the trade deficit. But the government deficit remains the big headache. The government cannot function, cannot supply services, and cannot provide capital expenditure, so long as its domestic debt is the size it is. I am not talking here about foreign debt which has always been in deficit. I am talking about domestic capital expenditure which, in the past was sustained by government's own revenues. In the last two years it has been sustained, as said, by a combination of asset sales and domestic borrowing. And this is a quite crippling situation.
'A commitment to the entire economy must take precedence'
· When you came to power, you promised lower taxes and held out the possibility of higher wages. Do you not find yourself in an awkward position with the electorate now that wages are frozen and taxes seem to be increasing ?
-We have, in fact, reduced income taxes for everyone and have eliminated them altogether for people who earn less than B$200 a week. So we have kept that promise. The essential point here, however, is that the public service is just one segment of the economy. We believe that a commitment to the entire economy must take precedence over any previous commitments to just one sector, particularly where the effect is that the rest of the economy is being hurt. High government wages, even in times of prosperity, are unsustainable. They eventually do damage to the wider economy. The government should not be the most expensive organisation in the country. lt has to be as efficient as possible and pay realistic wages. When the government increases wages by almost 40% in three years, that has repercussions for the rest of the economy. There are pressures for other employers to do the same and that causes inflation, creates difficulties for investment, dries up investment capital and generally sends everything into a tailspin.
· What about the impact of your policies on private business. They are paying an extra 1% in tax. The same is true for the professions-doctors, engineers and so on. They have to pay 2% more and they can't pass this on to the consumer. Is this not likely to hit them hard in a situation where competition is fierce ?
-Obviously. But the question is, are we going to undergo the pain now and solve the problem, or will we do nothing. If we choose the latter, many of them will eventually be bankrupted. There will be a devaluation with all the negative consequences that flow from that. The point is that we need to correct a situation that has gone terribly wrong. In the correcting process, everybody will have to make sacrifices. The choice is between making the sacrifice to achieve the results, and not making the sacrifice in which case, we can just watch the economy go down the drain.
· What measures does your government plan to take to encourage investment in the country ?
-The first thing is to make clear that one of our primary objectives is the stability of the currency. We think that an unstable currency creates an atmosphere that is least conducive to investment. Secondly, we have to make sure that capital is available for investment at reasonable cost. It cannot be made available so long as the government is the principal borrower in the economy. The state absorbs funds that are needed for investment and puts them into nonproductive activities. This effectively deprives investors of the capital they need. And we certainly want to encourage domestic investment in the economy. That is why, in the short term, we have to take measures to eliminate the government debt, freeing up the banking system so that it can begin to finance investment in the country. As far as foreign investment is concerned, we have had for a long time, a programme of development incentives which includes tax holidays and freedom from import duties for export businesses.
· It seems that the authorities have cancelled some of the commitments entered into by the previous government Two examples I have come across are the 'Hydro-electric project 'and the 'Milk plan'. Is there not a danger that this kind of action might affect the credibility of the country, and prove offputting to foreign business people who might be considering investing here ?
-Let me explain what we have done. The arrangements that the previous government made in respect of the two projects you mention were, in fact, quite disgraceful. In the case of the hydro project, we have managed to rewrite the terms more-although not completely- to our satisfaction. As a result, we estimate that over the life of the project, which is 40 years, the country will save about $100 million overall. We think it was worth the fight to get that changed. As regards the milk project, the arrangement was essentially that the government should pay for it. The government was to reduce excise duties on beer by 50% to allow a company to produce milk. We certainly do not see any reason why the government should be paying for the project. I should say we have done nothing to stop it. They have a development concession which includes tax breaks and exemptions from import duties. But at the end of the day, it is a private business and it is for them to make the investment, not the government.
· There are apparently some disagreements within the government: reports of a dispute between Hubert Elrington and the Deputy Prime Minister Dean Barrow. Are you worried that this lack of unity might be damaging to the administration ?
-I don't know that it is necessarily a bad thing. In all political parties and all governments, people have differing opinions. If everyone had the same view, we would stagnate. So I think in fact it illustrates the openness and democracy that exists within the government. People are able to express their ideas freely and to put their points of view forward. I don't see that as a bad thing at all.
· Turning to foreign policy, what is the current status of the dispute with Guatemala. Is it now over ?
- No, because while Guatemala has accepted our independence, they still do not recognise our borders. Until they are prepared to do that, we will have a problem. The situation at the moment is calm and there are friendly relations between us. In fact, the current government in Guatemala is something of a 'lame duck' for two reasons. It was not elected and, in any case, its term of office expires towards the end of this year. Because of this, we do not foresee anything significant happening towards solving the problem, at least in the short term.
· But don't you have the support of virtually all the countries in the region who accept the position of Belize ?
-No they don't
· Are you saying that some have supported Guatemala ?
-No, but they have no view on the border issue. None of them has come forward, including the United States, to say that they accept the territorial boundaries of Belize. Yes, they support our independence. That is very clear. So does Guatemala. But when it come to 'what is Belize', there is no agreement. And I am not sure that we can count on support from anyone on this issue, in the way that we could for our independence. I don't think anybody will get involved in the question of what is Belize's territorial boundary.
· So how do you think the master can be resolved ?
-From our point of view, the territorial boundaries of Belize are not a matter for discussion, so I don't know how it will be resolved. I think it can only be concluded by a change of attitude in Guatemala City. Having accepted our independence, it should follow that they accept the boundaries as set out in our independence constitution.
· And do you think the fact that the British forces have left will make it more difficult for you ?
-I think at the moment that everything is on a diplomatic rather than a military level. So I don't see that the departure of the British is going to have that effect. The effect it does have, however, is to encourage adventurism on the border because people may feel we are unable to react. We expect there will incursions of civilians from time to time, and that this will be supported by political elements within Guatemala. There was a case in point last year. We were engaged for the greater part of six months in getting Guatemala to assist in removing a hundred Guatemalan families from our territory. But I think we have demonstrated that we will be very firm where that is concerned.
· In similar situations, a solution has been found through the United Nations or the International Court of Justice. Do you not think you could use this possibility to reach a solution more quickly - pushing Guatemala to accept your boundaries.
- Firstly, I don't think Guatemala sees that as an option. They consider it a constitutional matter on their side and therefore would not subject themselves to that. Secondly, I don't think anybody really cares about this kind of border issue. They care about independence, but as to where a country begins and ends on a map is not of much concern to anyone.
· For Belize whet are the most important areas of foreign policy-your relations with the United States, Central America, Caricom, Europe or what ?
-Obviously, relations with the USA will always be of great importance to us and everyone else in this hemisphere. Events like the Summit of the Americas are a clear indication of this. Our primary and long-standing relationship is with the English-speaking Caribbean and we are continuing to foster that through our membership of Caricom. Our relationships with Mexico have always been excellent and we will certainly try to do everything we can to maintain that. As for our links with Central America, these have improved considerably over the last year, now that the Central Americans have accepted the idea of Belize's independence. As you rightly say, they have not supported Guatemala in any suggestion of excluding Belize from the Central American arena. In fact, our inclusion has been consolidated day by day, with no objections from Guatemala.
As for Europe, as you know, we have some difficulties, particularly with regard to the banana regime. Europe itself is divided on this issue. Our relationship with the EU is, by and large, one with the United Kingdom. As regards the other EU countries, there are some with whom we have hardly any relations - not in a negative sense-but just as a matter of fact. There are others with whom we have some exchanges-a little bit of trading and perhaps technical assistance, and we hope to keep building these links.
Belize appears largely to have achieved a sense of unity but there seems to be some problem with the Garifuna people. Is this significant ?
-I don't believe so. Any minority group will always feel that more should be done, and perhaps justly so. But you will also get elements within any group that will attribute failings or problems to the fact of their ethnicity rather than to other factors. I think the Garifuna people have, in fact, come an extremely long way in terms of their image and acceptance among the rest of the community. The Garifuna people are to be seen in all walks of life whether in the private sector or the government. Anybody who sees the difficulties as something which stem from attachment to a particular ethnic grouping is, I think, probably not looking at the whole picture.
· What about the specific issue of the monument to the Garifuna people and the surrounding land ? With only 200 000 people in Belize there is a lot of empty land that could be used.
-Well there are several factors here. That land was acquired by displacing Garifuna people. It was taken away from people who traditionally farmed in that area and we feel that that was an injustice. But there are, within the Garifuna community, just as many people who are convinced that if it is a competition between people's access to land and homes, and a monument, they would rather choose the former. As for the point that there is a lot of land available elsewhere, that fails to recognise the fact that one has to have access to utilities such as water and electricity. It is not logical just to say that there is plenty of land available. That is not a sufficient base on which to build a community.
'We need to be prepared for the era of trade liberalisation'
· Finally, can you recapitulate your key objectives for Belize ?
-As I said, we need first to straighten out the government's financial position. Government must extract itself from the private economy. We must get out of the way of the private sector by eliminating our domestic debt. In addition, we obviously need to be prepared for the era of trade liberalisation. This has the potential for great benefits but also for a great deal of damage to our economy. We are, therefore, seeking alliances-with our traditional partners such as Caricom and with non-traditional partners such as the Central American countries - to better prepare ourselves to deal with the challenge. It is particularly important in the field of agriculture. A totally free market could easily disrupt our domestic agricultural activity, perhaps beyond repair. So we aim to ensure that we develop the markets that must be developed in the region, to give our farmers more export outlets. Once foreign agricultural products are freely able to invade the domestic market, the only solution is for us to penetrate external ones. We have very little time, but through these alliances mentioned, we have a lot of skill available to us in the region to help us accomplish this objective.
The overall message must be that the government has a very serious situation to correct. To do that, it has to take measures which will be painful. But the bottom line is that if you take the measures and suffer the pain now, you can solve the problem. If you carry on as if there is no problem, then you finally end up in a much worse situation. Fundamental common sense dictates that we must act immediately, even if there is a cost attached, so that we can move forward in the shortest possible time.
Architect of Belize's independence
Since Belize's first election under universal suffrage in 1954, George Price, the current leader of the opposition, has spent more years than anyone else at the helm of his country. He was e/so one of the key players, and some would say the main architect, of its independence. A founding member of the PUP, he rose quickly to assume the leadership. In 1958, he was prosecuted by the British authorities for sedition -and his popularity with the voters soared. He went on to win five successive elections and to leave his imprint firmb on the nation. When he opted for a new seat of government in the interior, the pretext was a cyclone which had threatened the coastal capital. The real reason was George Price's desire to bring government closer to the people, removing it from the dosed world of Belize City. It was also Price who led the first post-independence government He went out on a limb in 1983 when he refused to sanction the invasion of Grenada by American forces and despite US pressure, he kept a number of ministers in his government who were regarded by Washington as 'socialists' Having lost to the UDP in the 1984 election, the PUP regained power in 1989 and George Price again became Prime Minister.
The regular swing of the pendulum between two political parties with few ideological differences, and the fact that George Price himself has long experience of office, have moulded him into a moderate but by no means complacent opposition leader. He has recently stepped up his criticisms of the rigorous policies of the current government - policies which appear to have hit the UDP's popular standing. But having held the reins of power for so long himself, he cannot dissociate himself entirely from the problems which Belize now faces, particularly when government ministers seldom miss an opportunity to attribute most of the blame to him.
· Mr Price, you have recently increased your attacks on the policies of the govern
- Our criticism is that the economy of Belize is in trouble and, for the most part, the trouble has been caused by the government. When they came to power in July 1993 they did certain things that adversely affected the economy. In particular, they cancelled or suspended contracts that were ongoing. This led to a loss of confidence among the business and financial community. If the government can go back on contracts, what else might it do in the future. It also created unemployment and the result was less tax revenue going into the state coffers. They incurred additional expenditure by employing their political officers and discharging a number top civil servants. That represents a double expenditure. Money has to be found to pay the salaries of the new people and to compensate those whose service has been ended. They have spent a lot of money on new vehicles and also on travelling. In a poor country like Belize, official travel should be controlled and, where it is necessary to attend conferences, we should try to keep the size of delegations to the minimum. Perhaps just two or three people, or sometimes even just one, instead of six. We see ministers taking unnecessary trips too many places. As a result of all this, The economy is in trouble.
The first thing they did when they gained power was to present a deficit budget. It was the first time in our political history that this had happened. In 1993, the deficit was something like $20 million and in the following year, they presented another budget containing a deficit of $40 million. So they have had to find ways of collecting more money. They have done this by imposing a tax known as the 'gross proceeds tax'. When the importer brings in goods and sells them to the wholesaler, the wholesaler has to pay 1% tax. And when the wholesaler sells the goods to the retailer, the retailer in turn has to pay 1%. When the product finally reaches the consumer, he has to pay anywhere from 3% to 5% of the value of the goods. The effect of all this is to increase the cost of living. And one of the results is that there are fewer jobs available and more unemployment. In addition, there are virtually no significant projects in the pipeline. The only projects that are ongoing are those that our government set up. For example, there was the Rehabilitation Programme of Belize which was designed to improve the canals, and roads like the Southern Highway.
· Members of the present government would argue that if there are problems now, it is because your administration spent too much and took on to many expensive commitments.
-Let me address that point. We did not leave the state bankrupt. At the time there was the change of government, the central bank had $89 million in foreign reserves. There was another $40 million deposited in the commercial banks. So there was money there. We also left a midyear budget which would have been balanced had they chosen to work with it.
The income that was projected from customs duties was all collected. There has been a lot of talk about the five buildings that were constructed by an Italian company when we were in power. It has been suggested that the government could have built them for less but I think this is misleading. When the Ministry of Works puts up a building, they don't include a number of charges in the calculation: for example, the architectural plans or the cost of supervision, because these are done by the Ministry of Works and absorbed in their budget. And the new buildings are serving a very useful purpose. There is the market itself, of course. The police needed more room and now there is a new police station. We had to have a customs building for the new seaport and now we have got it. There is also a fire station, which was clearly needed, and a library for the students. They may have appeared to cost more than the usual buildings but they clearly have a value.
· Can I ask you about the milk project that your government started. The Prime Minister says that it would have cost the government money and that was why they had to cancel some of their commitments.
-Yes. There was a plan in place when we left office whereby an investor would build a factory to process milk. And that would have saved the foreign exchange that pays for the import of milk. We thought the project was feasible but, for some reason, the government cancelled it.
· You say, regarding investment in the country, that the government lacks credibility. Isn't it the case that a lot of countries are finding it difficult to attract foreign investors Wouldn't you face the same problem if you were in power ?
-I should say that the problem is self-induced. The government brought about the loss of credibility through the actions they undertook when they gained power. They have caused it and they now have to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the people suffer. The cost of living has gone up.
· Looking beyond the economic issues, what are your other major concerns ?
- We are worried about an imbalance of power within the government. There was a recent change in cabinet portfolios and we now have one that encompasses the security forces, the police, the attorney-general and the courts. We think there is too much concentration of power within a single ministry and that that imbalance could lead to trouble in the future.
· What kind of trouble.
-The same kind of thing that happened in Haiti. You shouldn't allow one person to control the army and the forces of law and order. The power has to be distributed. Before, the police came under one ministry, while defence was the responsibility of another.
· Why do you think Mr Barrow has received all these different responsibilities.
-I am not entirely sure. There is an impression that the Prime Minister is not strong enough in Cabinet to do what he thinks should be done.
· What about the disagreement between the two Ministers-Hubert Elrington and Dean Barrow. The Prime Minister argues that this is evidence of freedom inside the government and of a healthy democracy.
-He may think that but I think it reveals the weakness of the Cabinet. A Cabinet should be strong and united behind a government's policy. Democracy has certain rules. When a minister doesn't agree with a policy, that minister should resign.
· Belize appears to enjoy a reasonable sense of national unity but a problem seems to have arisen involving the Garifuna community and the fate of the Garifuna monument Do you see this as a significant problem.
-That could be a problem. They were going to build a park and a monument and the government changed that by taking a part away for housing. I think they made a mistake. They should have allowed it to go ahead. A lot of money was invested in the monument and the park. It is really a case of undoing what we set out to achieve in preparing for independence.
Our party, the PUP, had to bring the six districts of the country together. At one time we were separated. Everything was in Belize City and the outer districts were isolated. We got them united under a name-Belize-the old name of the settlement in the Bay of Honduras which is derived from the Maya expression for 'road to the sea'. We also gave the country a flag and an anthem. That brought the people together as a nation: a small one admittedly but, nevertheless there is a feeling of nationhood. And we have been very careful to maintain this sense of unity. Now there is a danger that the cancellation of the monument could introduce divisions. We are a country of various races and our challenge is to keep everybody together-different origins but one nationality. I think that is one of the big attractions that we have for tourists. Admittedly, we have seen an increase in crime, and a drug problem which is hard to avoid, but in relative terms, the country enjoys good security, certainly in comparison to other countries. And as a tourist base we can offer big attractions: the barrier reef, the extensive ruins of the Maya civilisations, beautiful scenery and very diverse wildlife.
· Finally, can you sum up the difference between your party and the UDP.
-Belize is a democracy and we see it as our duty to do everything possible to develop the whole country. We don't think the government should be used as an instrument of a single political party, discriminating against people or practising victimisation. And that is what is happening at the moment. We feel that members of our party are being penalised. I think that is a big difference. We would be a compassionate government-one that feels responsible for the whole country. Another big difference, I think, is that we are better administrators, as was shown in the last government. We do not promise more than we can fulfil. You need to show responsibility in working out a programme of government. We are also more concerned about the 'little' man. We are there to improve his life condition. The weaker you are the more you should benefit from the protection of the government.
The Queen's representative in Belize is Sir Colville Young, a poet, musician and intellectual who pot litely greets the visitor with a permanent and completely natural smile. He is the Governor-General, representing the Crown in Belize. He is so affable that you continually have to remind yourself of the position this man holds. He, in the meantime, does his utmost to make you forget it.
His humility matches Belmopan, the modest capital, and his language harmonises with these calm surroundings. Sir Colville appears to be at ease in his comfortable, but not excessively luxurious, official residence, although he would appear just as comfortable, one imagines, in an even more modest setting.
A half-hour session is frustrating when you do not want to conduct an interview but rather to allow your interlocutor free rein. It is all the more frustrating when you rapidly discover that what he has to say is really worth listening to. And all the while, he makes it clear that he is quite prepared to listen to you.
Given his reputation as a connoisseur of his country's culture, the simplest thing was to ask him what constituted culture in Belize-a nation of 200 000 inhabitants divided into innumerable groups originating from all quarters. His calm replies are punctuated with the modest 'l believe ...', an expression characteristic of those who, in fact, know.
Each group still speaks its own language; the Chinese speak Chinese, the Mayas speak Mayan, the Garifuna speak Garifuna and so on. The lingua franca, however, is Creole, the tongue which emerged from the interbreeding of Europeans and Africans. It has become the common language of communication- an example of something originating in one group which has been accepted by everyone. There is also a degree of commonality in eating habits: the typically Creole dish, 'rice and beans' is eaten everywhere. So too is goat meat, which was originally 'Spanish' (brought by the mestizos). The empanada, a maize flour patty, is also widely consumed. As Colville Young puts it, 'there is thus an intermixing of our cultures'.
Unfortunately, this intermixing does not extend to matters of religion. There are a number of indigenous rituals, for example, when the Garifuna celebrate their settling in Belize, but generally there is little 'native' input, and European religions predominate. 'I think that is a great pity' says the Governor General. He continues, 'although the Bible's message has remained the same, the way in which the message is passed on, and the medium, could have been adapted throughout the world. For example, here, there could have been a Belizean approach, after the fashion of certain countries where music and local rhythm also play a part.'
The predominant religion is Catholicism, which may seem surprising for a former British colony. When the English first arrived, the religion was obviously Anglican, with a little Methodism thrown in. The trend towards Catholicism was natural, however, given the large numbers of immigrants who arrived subsequently from Mexico and other neighbouring countries and who all helped to forge the nation. The newcomers often came to escape political systems against which they had revolted or revolutions which had got out of hand. And as Mr Young observed, 'despite the fact that we were living under a colonial system, which was intrinsically bad, they appreciated the stability and peace of this small country.'
Immigrants do not pose problems of integration for the simple reason that they resemble and speak like a sizeable part of the population which is of the same stock. The people living in the North and West of the country were also originally from Mexico and Central America. In addition, those who arrive want to become Belizean. 'I am pleased about that,' says the Governor-General.
'They are loyal to Belize'. Immigrants tend to have little schooling and they accept very low wages. With unemployment rife, this causes friction, but there is not the same type of tension as in France, for example, between the local population and Algerians or other foreigners. But, as our interviewee wryly observed, 'when our people go to the United States, they face problems of prejudice, and this opens their eyes'.
Admittedly, Belize is not very well known abroad. The Governor-General agrees that it does little to advertise itself, but then, the country does not have sufficient infrastructure to receive large numbers of tourists He thinks it could be a mistake for Belize to sell itself too well- people would want to come and there would be nowhere to accommodate them. Also, too many tourists might destroy the simple way of life while, in environmental terms, species such as alligators and some birds might not be able to withstand too great an intrusion onto their territory.
By contrast, bringing tourists into closer contact with the people and through them, with the country, in a regulated way, could perhaps be promoted. This would provide some income for individual citizens instead of all the profits going to big companies.
All the contributions made by different groups have been melded together to forge a culture. It may appear to be threatened by Americanisation through the medium of television, amongst other things, but Colville Young 'believes that' the local culture is strong enough to resist, although he admits he does not know for how long or at what level. American culture, he observes, has made inroads everywhere, even in Russia where hamburgers are now commonplace. One of the reasons why American culture is infiltrating more and more into Belize, apart from the fact that approximately 60 TV channels are received there, is that tens of thousands of Belizeans live in the United States, where they have gone in search of better opportunities. When they return to Belize, these people import a lifestyle which seduces those who remained: these expatriates have an air of success about them and the USA thus acquires the image of being a paradise.
However, in country areas, tales and myths are still very much alive and these have not been diluted by American influences. 'We have to make a major effort to keep our myths, proverbs, traditional healing methods, dances, arts and artisans alive and well', says Colville Young. But who is to do this ? Sometimes, people think that it should be the government, but is it a good idea for it to interfere too much in cultural matters? On the other hand, if everyone wants someone else to deal with the problem, nothing will ever be done.
Approximately ten years ago, Colville Young wrote a stage play based on a Belizean story. In a sense, it was more like a short opera, including music that he composed himself. He sees this as his own modest contribution to this work of regrouping local culture which has to consist of using the country's legends in all areas of life. Even television could be used to this end.
The Queen's man in Belize has not only made this contribution to the defence of national culture: he has also written, published and recorded stories, a collection of proverbs, songs, traditional music and books of poems. The most recent was published in 1993 and was entitled 'From one Caribbean Corner'. It begins with a delightful composition in memory of Bob Marley in which he addresses the dead star thus:
'(...Beat for 1)
Mixing ingredients of your protest
Like pepper-hot bitterly bubbling:
Of an evil Babylon burning
And haunted haunting melodies
Where shanty-town black children
Bite in emptiness
Of bloated bellies that wondering
If throat cut above
And, under it all
The driving pulse
(O. Beat man, reggae-man, beat for 1)'
In a spontaneous gesture, Sir Colville Young gave us his book of poems, dedicating it with the simple words 'From Colville'. He is certainly a man of rhythm and style.
There was no way, with an ordinary vehicle, that we were going to be able to drive back up that four kiLome long slope. Persistent rain had fumed it into a quagmire of fine, slippery mud. Yet our young driver only finally lost heart when the clutch gave out. For two hours, we had been moving forward in fits and starts in the vain hope that all our pushing, aided by the use of scores of branches under the wheels, would provide sufficient grip. The possibility of being towed out by a Canadian globe. trotter, complete with a fourwhee-drive, also came to naught. He had proudly announced to us that he had just crossed North America and was preparing to drive down to the south of the continent. Rut our hopes soon evaporated as he too found himself bogged down in the mud. In fact, he did manage to extricate himself an hour or so later having resumed to the bottom of the hill. There he managed to get up enough speed to tackle the slope. Unfortunately, our putative rescuer fumed out to be a 'hit and run' driver. In his attempt to beat the mud, he drove straight into our door and, perhaps fearing the consequences of the accident, had kept on going, disappearing into the darkness. In fact, the prospect of spending the night in the forest, and of having to walk several kiLomes the next day to seek help, made the collision seem a trivial matter. We pretended to sleep in the muggy heat of our vehicle which had become an oven, the windows wound up to protect us from mosquitoes, cunning snakes and, who knows, a crafty jaguar or two. Then there was a miracle. On their routine round, with a fully-equipped vehicle, the owners of the inn just inside the protected zone caught sight of the dim light from our headlamps. Covered in mud, we were taken back to civilisation and then, after hot tea beside the big open fire in the Hidden Valley Inn and a three hour taxi ride, we were back in our hotel in Belize City.
This was our only (slightly) adventurous episode-and an involuntary one at that-in a country which attracts true adventurers. These are the people one encounters at Eva's Restaurant in San Ignacio, a small town full of character at the foot of the great Mayas mountains. In Belize, they can throw themselves wholeheartedly into the pursuit of their passions, whether it be climbing, caving, rafting or walking. There are also those who specialise in diving into the 'Blue Holes'. One such is to be found off Belize City, on the coral reef. There, it is possible to dive down into the deep blue of a 1000-foot-diameter, 480-foot-deep shaft. Altematively, one can stop on the Hummingbird Highway, not far from Belmopan, in Blue Hole Park and take a phenomenal leap from the rocky promontory or the surrounding trees into a sapphire-blue shaft of sparkling, icy water about ten metres deep, set in the middle of a pool. You have to aim carefully though because it is very narrow. The abundant foliage which shades the pool and the shadow of the half-open grotto create a kind of religious serenity which envelops the visitor.
While descending the last slope leading to the waterfall (which few Belizeans have visited), we knew that what we were doing was unwise. There was a steady drizzle and the car was already sliding about. Yet even at the most awkward moment, we had no real regrets. Perhaps we should have insisted on taking the 4 x 4 we had used before. Perhaps we should have asked for the cellphone (wrongly seen as a new toy, purely for show). But the site of the Hidden Valley Falls, and the drive in silence down a one-thousand-foot-drop to the invisible bottom of the funnel-shaped mountain range, was an unforgettable experience. Down in the valley, we were flanked by the mountains, standing as if ready for some bizarre formation dance. The lights of our vehicle, diffuse in the yellowish, drizzly dusk, barely illuminated the scene. We could sense the site more than we could see it but, in our admiration, we became part of it.
The flight of the jabiru
With his dented straw hat, khaki T-shirt and fatigues, John Masson looked like a guerilla fighter, an experienced guide, an archaeologist in search of hidden treasure and a holiday-camp group leader all rolled into one. John, who is the Site Manager for Programme for Belize is, in fact, a bit of each of the last three. Above all he is a professional-a manager who knows the scientific subtleties or perhaps a researcher with management skills. No matter. To discover the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area with him is a privilege. He tells you about the creation of the Programme for Belize, a private but non-profit-making company which has bought 230 000 acres (about 100 000 hectares) of tropical forest. He speaks knowledgably about research into biodiversity, the natural habitat and horticulture. And he waxes eloquent about the 60 or so Maya sites located on the land he is responsible for. One of these is La Milpa, one of the three most important sites in Belize, which has recently come to be regarded as the birthplace of the classical Maya period. The work of the archaeologists, he says, is geared to finding the answer to one single question: why did this civilisation collapse. You may find it difficult to remember all the details from this flow of erudite information, as you try to keep up with the names of the flowers and the birds (the yellow tones of the Ludwigia on the Chichibe hedges, the purple bells of the Morning Glory). Yet you cannot escape the feeling that here is someone who wants to share his encyclopedic knowledge. The facts may get jumbled but the essential remains: the sugary aroma of the coffee bush which grows in the shade of ancient trees; the mixture of smells of flowers and damp earth; the rare sight of the jabiru taking flight on its six-foot wings; giant mahogany trees and Maya structures standing side by side; roots embedded in the stone; sensations of freshness; the harsh contact of leaves and branches; the soft moisture of droplets of dew on your neck; and your own frisson of alarm on learning from your guide that the musky smell is that of a jaguar who wants to remain hidden. Then there are the sounds-the cries of animals -and the silences. Seeing a jabiru is a good omen.
The route to the park from Belize City is circuitous-up towards the border with Mexico, then west and back down in a south-westerly direction until you are almost level with your starting point. The sight, however, is well worth the detour.
'Made in nostalgia'
It is also worth staying in Belize City. This town's languid air and the affability of its people make one forget the advice to be cautious and the fears about lack of security. Criminality, although it probably exists, must lie below the surface. Belize City invites you to relax, with its colonial houses, tree-lined avenues, flowery squares, meanderings and, above all, the sound of water from the lagoons, Haulover Creek river which dawdles its way through the town, and the many canals. You are reminded of the charm of Venice as you watch the swing bridge in operation, or the balletic dance of the fishing boats with their sails, leaving at dawn and coming back at dusk, always surrounded by an unreal light. Friday is market day, but street vendors can be seen every day: players on a daily stage of colour and fantasy. You see a little girl in a colourful satin dress with lace and flounces. The label could be 'made in nostalgia'. She is probably a Mennonite, descended from 19th century European immigrants, who has come this very morning from the western mountains, accompanying her parents who sell wooden artifacts and thereby keep the old crafts alive. It is this feeling that time has stopped which is the magic of Belize City. It is a magic that has been spotted in Hollywood. Films crews are not uncommon and one might easily encounter stars like Harrison Ford in the foyer of the Fort Georges Radisson Hotel. It is a pity, though, that the films made here (Mosquito Coast, Dogs of War or Heart of Darkness) should have titles which give no hint of the town's true seductive nature.
Flying over the coral reef in a light aircraft at low altitude offers a different kind of thrill, but one which depends on the vagaries of the weather. Normally, the islands guarantee sun and relaxation but when we went to San Pedro, it had been raining. The potholed streets, which are covered in sand for the comfort of barefoot walkers, had become waterlogged. We found warmth again in the atmosphere of a family 'pension' called the 'Seychelles'. Its owner, Sandra Cooper, combines the friendliness and reserve characteristic of many Belizeans. She lived in the USA for some years, but decided a short time ago to settle in this small comer of her country, offering visitors something other than the artificial gaiety of the hotels; something of the real Belize. It is rare to find extensive beaches on the islands - you have to go to Placencia on the coast for these, but the striking views of the sea and the rocks will soon take your mind off them. There is always a quiet corner to be found, wherever you are in Belize. This is particularly the case at Caulker Keys, the wildest and least tourist-oriented of the islands which tends to be visited mostly by locals. If you want peace and quiet, though, perhaps you should avoid the cemetery on the beach. This unusual juxtaposition, not surprisingly, is a draw for visitors!
by Jose Morgado
Situated at the meeting point of the Caribbean and Central America, Belize is geographically part of the latter, but its culture and language place it in the former. Although it has been a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) since 1974 and of the Organisation of American States (OAS) since 1991, Belize has always been somewhat isolated from both regions and up, to now, it has not fully benefited from the many economic and cultural advantages which such partnerships can bring.
Its small size (22965 km²) and sparse population (9 inhabitants per km²) mean that its internal market is very small, and its per capita socio-economic infrastructural costs very high. This makes it vulnerable to outside forces and dependent on aid from the international community to enable it to cope with the rigours of development and economic growth.
Despite these constraints, it has managed to record some remarkable economic results. During the 1980s, Belize achieved a real GDP growth rate of 10% and kept inflation down to less than 2% on average. Between 1992 and 1994, a period of international economic crisis, a real growth rate of 4% in GDP was maintained with inflation at an average rate of less than 1.8%. This sustained economic growth was achieved thanks to a very tight macro-economic policy, favourable export prices for agricultural products and access to the preferential markets of the European Union and the USA. Privatisation of the banana and sugar industries and of the telecommunications company also contributed to these good economic results.
Keepers of the Maya mystery
As investigations into the causes of the disappearance of the Maya civilisation continue, Belize is coming to be seen as one of the most important centres of this highly developed and dynamic culture and is therefore arousing the interest of archaeologists and tourists alike. Belize also enjoys the benefits of a magnificent coral reef (the second largest in the world) along its coast, numerous keys (heavenly islands of sand and palm trees surrounded by the enchanting sea) and its tropical rain forest, 80% of which has been preserved and which offers flora and fauna the like of which are not seen anywhere else in the world. All these assets make Belize a tropical paradise, whose tourism potential has yet to be promoted and developed.
Like many of the EU's other ACP partners, Belize has to cope with the usual constraints faced by small developing countries. The small size of the internal market very much limits the possibilities for industry to stimulate production. Other problems include the aforementioned high infrastructure cost per inhabitant, dependence on the outside world, limited resources, a fragile environment, and vulnerability to natural disasters (especially tropical storms). Action taken to aid development of the most important sectors, such as agriculture, tourism and the private sector more generally, entails, amongst other things, developing the infrastructure to increase competitiveness. European assistance is geared towards achieving this aim.
The main projects implemented under Lom (1975-1980) involved the construction of three secondary schools and a veterinary laboratory equipped with modem equipment, and the expansion of the international airport. ECU 2 million was also provided towards the construction of the new Belize City Hospital.
The LomI national indicative programme (1981 to 1985) continued to provide assistance for the social infrastructure, and in particular the Belize City Hospital. The existing wood and concrete building, which was 100 years old, was the only large hospital in the country and it did not provide adequate levels of medical care.
Under LomII (1986 to 1990) and the first financial protocol of LomV (1991 to 1995), about 90% of NIP resources were devoted to social and economic infrastructure. The two main projects here are the upgrading of the Hummingbird Highway, the sole road link with the south of the country, which is crucial for the transport of produce such as bananas, citrus and rice, and the continuing work on the hospital. The latter does not just include design and construction, but also covers training of hospital staff, and technical assistance for the Health Ministry to advise on its preparations for the transfer to the new building and for the day-to-day management of the hospital. By the end of 1994,99% of total scheduled assistance (ECU 29 million) had been allocated, and 95% actually spent, the project being 98% complete.
Through the European Investment Bank, Belize has benefited from additional EU assistance in sectors which as a rule do not satisfy the assistance criteria of the European Development Fund. Under the four Lomonventions, the EIB has financed five loans to the Development Finance Cooperation for the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises and a pilot gold mine project, and two loans to Belize's electricity company. Total EIB assistance amounted to ECU 10.1 million in the period between 1983 and 1994.
Regional cooperation to improve integration
The various Lomaribbean regional programmes offer considerable scope for development but this is one area where Belize has perhaps not been able to maximise the potential of EU assistance. Notwithstanding this, under Lom and 11, the country did benefit from three financing operations amounting to ECU 2.1 million in total which focused on agricultural research projects.
The Belize Government is cooperating with the EU to implement a project intended to preserve and promote the most important Maya monuments in the country (Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, Nim Li Punit etc.). This project also includes the construction or improvement of access routes, and of small museums on archaeological sites, and the opening of centres offering tourist information services, accommodation and catering under one roof.
Out of the total of ECU 90 million allocated under LomV to the Caribbean Regional Integration Programme (via Cariforum), ECU 2.1 million has been provided for research and technical assistance projects in the fishing sector, management of which is carried out by Belize in its capacity as the regional authorising office.
The political stability of Belize in the violent central American region has attracted some 35 000 refugees and displaced persons from neighbouring countries. These people have been settled throughout Belize for a number of years now. Under LomII and IV, the EU financed four projects, at a cost of ECU 2.5 million, to help improve the living conditions of refugees and to assist them to integrate. There is also a project, costing ECU 0.5 million, which aims to explore ways of preserving the barrier reef and managing the coastline. This was approved in 1992. In December 1994, the EU approved a sum of ECU 1.5 million for a research programme into the conservation of the tropical rain forest. Finally, between 1990 and 1994, the EU financed projects managed by non-governmental organisations to the tune of ECU 1.3 million.
Future work will not just be limited to maintaining the current macroeconomic policy of the government, and establishing a coherent and well-maintained infrastructure. There will also be intensification and diversification of the agricultural sector (in response to food shortages), the promotion of tourism as an important source of income and the development of various aspects of the fishing sector covering such areas as research, training, production and promotion. Finally, there will be support for the private sector, with a particular focus on small and medium-sized enterprises, reflecting the fact that this is a key area for future economic development and growth.
Total assistance to Belize, 1975 to 1994 (in ECU million)