Features — 07 July 2018
Who is afraid of Belize’s Diaspora?

Continued from the Tuesday issue of the Amandala

On the whole, it is fairly obvious that the Belizean Diaspora is misunderstood and thus mis-appraised. It is not a monolithic group, but one of the most fragmented and possibly divided Diasporas. There is a lack of leadership, organisation, ideological focus and goals, and therefore there is an urgent need for capacity building. In a number of important aspects our Diaspora mirrors the national chaos and anomie at home. The Belizean Diaspora is also economically modest when compared to other Diasporas in North America and Britain. But one needs to appreciate that a Diaspora can only work its economic magic not only if the host country within which it is situated tolerates it and gives it opportunities, but also if the home country appreciates it. But the Belizean government has no coherent Diasporan strategy that builds and strengthens national feelings of identity and affection. It also has no plan to integrate this large, but disparate force into Belize’s present and future. All this obstructs the effective cultivation and sustenance of powerful social networks which often serve as an impetus to economic empowerment. One of the reasons why the Belizean Consortium for Development failed, which was meant to confer economic empowerment to Belize and its people, is that it had little support from the Belizean government which starved it of vital oxygen. Again, the legendary patriot, Philip Goldson,  stands out as one who supported the group and sincerely wanted it to succeed.

Our Diaspora can be found mainly in the US, Canada, and the U.K., with tiny pockets in the Caribbean. It can be located under two types of Diaspora formulations, namely a Labour Diaspora and a Cultural Diaspora. A Labour Diaspora refers to those who left Belize in search of economic, educational and professional opportunities. A Cultural Diaspora includes those who emigrated through the process of chain migration; whereby a close relative first emigrated from Belize and, eventually as a resident or a citizen, sponsored other relatives to join him or her. Our Diaspora is not only diverse in nature and rationale, but it is also largely conditioned by its reasons for migration, the time periods people left Belize, and the way it interacts or fails to negotiate the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions in the US, Canada, the U.K., and the Caribbean, as well as its attitudes towards Belize.

In the main, there are five discernible groups within this Diaspora. They are firstly, the intelligentsia; secondly, those who have become almost totally acculturated to the host country; thirdly, the “roots” Belizeans; fourthly, those who are below the radar, mostly because they are undocumented immigrants; and fifthly, second and third generation Belizeans.

The intelligentsia are chiefly among those who are successful professionally and economically. They are often sophisticated and live comfortable lives. While they are emotionally attached to Belize, are well informed about events at home, they generally have little appetite or the skills to engage with most of the political charlatans, “poco tiempo” and “romperaro” characters bestriding the Belizean political and social landscape. This group of Diasporan Belizeans are detested by most of our politicians; and are unfailingly given short shrift when they return home either to work or settle permanently. Only the most intrepid and obdurate among them survive and remain in Belize; others, disillusioned, refuse to take the flak and leave, some never to return. These are the ones who on returning home permanently can afford to travel abroad regularly to countries with advanced medical facilities, and need not rely on Belize’s poor medical services.

Regarding the second group of Diasporans, their allegiance to Belize resides mainly at the level of their love for our various traditional dishes and delicacies. Moreover, they have become so  acculturated and integrated into the social norms and life-style of their host country that they and their spouses, some of whom are foreign, regard Belize merely as a country to visit occasionally to attend the funerals of close relatives, and otherwise as tourists. These nationals are aloof and unconcerned about Belizean issues, and their grasp of Belizean affairs is fragile at most. Perhaps the only single topic that truly engages them is the Guatemalan claim, and even on that they are hopelessly out of touch. They also resist the idea that they may perhaps need to return to the land of their birth if things become unbearable in the host country. Members of this group usually end their days in indifferent and racist nursing homes, with equally indifferent children and foreign-oriented relatives or friends visiting them occasionally. Even their cremated remains at times are uncollected, or disrespectfully disposed  by uncaring relatives.

The third group within the Belizean Diaspora at best represents a large uncritical mass, whose chief concern after returning daily from working in low level jobs requiring minimum skills, is “enjoyment”. They identify best with Belize at the level of Belizean dances, barbecues, cook-ups, parties, fairs, weddings, memorial services held for socially active or prominent Diasporan Belizeans. They  arrive in large numbers to Diasporan meetings when the occasional Belizean politician or emissary comes calling with his beggars wish-list in hand. Members of this group tend to visit Belize intermittently, but unfailingly for the country’s annual September bacchanal. They will hardly if ever visit Chiquibul, our many fabulous beauty spots, Belize’s ancient Maya civilisation sites, or explore sections of our Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world after Australia’s, and is clearly visible from outer space. In fact, few Diasporan Belizeans have ever bothered to travel to neighbouring countries such as Costa Rica, which is the most progressive, democratic, and wealthiest Central American state.

The fourth group of Diasporans do not only consist of undocumented immigrants who “went through the back” or overstayed when their visas expired, but others who operate just one step ahead of the law. In the end, when their luck runs out they are deported, and return home to join their brethren and sistren on Southside Belize City. There, they become embroiled in the terrifying blood-bath fostered by the gang, guns and drugs culture transported from America, which has given Belize City, Mexico, as well as a number of Central American and Caribbean nations an unwholesome reputation.

The fifth group and the remaining members of our Diaspora are the citizens any forward-looking and pragmatic government would and should cultivate and recruit. These second and third generation Belizeans whose citizenship was generally gained by descent are often highly educated, upwardly mobile and multi-faceted professionals. While some are indifferent no-hopers, and this is largely due to ignorance, there are a number of them who are curious about their Belizean lineage and patrimony, but often learn about these through second-hand sources that may not be overly reliable or discerning.

To remedy this, progressive states like India through its Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, which relates with 25 million Indian-born Diasporans who live in 110 countries globally, actually cater to third generation Indians. We also find that the Indian government instills in its Diaspora that their first loyalty is to their new country, but that Indian patriotism must involve building affiliations to the new country. India makes the case that its Diaspora, and particularly second and third generation Indians must be utilised as links to knowledge, expertise, resources and markets for India.

Countries which are progressive do not merely limit their presence within their Diasporas to only consular and embassy services, and to encourage remittances to support families at home. Such countries, recognising the value of their Diasporas, extend and support citizenship rights, extend voting rights, foster electoral participation, and reward Diasporans who make valid contributions to the state. Additionally, they solicit the  return of their citizens to the point of providing facilitating services, including  welfare services for the most vulnerable. We find a country like Ireland since 2008 welcoming more than 100,000 of its people back to Ireland permanently. Others have schemes which include fostering business partnerships and investments, as well as supporting Diasporan networks and meetings. They also seek counselling advice from Diasporan leaders, promote knowledge transfers and solicit expert advice and training from Diasporan professionals. A wise government encourages Diasporan philanthropy to assist the home country, and refrain from subverting or converting this for narrow political ends.

In the end, Diasporan citizens are a valuable source of soft or smart power. When effective, a country gets what it wants via attraction, instead of coercion. And, we then find the country’s political ideals and policies are directed to securing specific outcomes through the use of its Diaspora in that particular host country. Think the American Jewish lobby: think Zionist Israel! Wise governments are also cognisant of the fact that Diasporans most often have unique insights, expertise, contacts, local knowledge, networks and personal commitment to their countries of birth that their diplomats do not have. The GOB has singularly missed a large number of opportunities to do right by our nation. It has failed to learn from what happened to the PUP when Belizeans rose up in righteous anger and drove them into the wilderness. This government has deliberately turned its back on the Diaspora, thinking that it is useless and so can be ignored. A day of reckoning must surely come, and it shall come like a thief in the night, for “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”

“This light of history is pitiless; it has a strange and divine quality that, luminous as it is, and precisely because it is luminous, often casts a shadow just where we saw a radiance; out of the same man it makes two different phantoms, and the one attacks and punishes the other…Babylon violated diminishes Alexander; Rome enslaved diminishes Caesar; massacred Jerusalem diminishes Titus.Tyranny follows the tyrant. Woe to the man who leaves behind a shadow that bears his form.” ( Victor Hugo)

(The writer lives in Lagos, Nigeria.)

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Deshawn Swasey

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