Part One of Three
As the bodies pile up, fences get taller and confidence in ourselves declines, Belizeans face a national crisis rivaling the vote to stand firm and fight against the Spanish invasion in 1798. This series of articles explores the recent history of governance in Belize and how a ruling party can and should work with citizens and civil organizations to meet these challenges and develop real solutions to the nation’s more pressing problems.
While Belize prides itself on being a multi-party democracy, in many ways we are merely going through the motions of democracy, but not living the substance. Why? Because since Independence in 1981, the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the People’s United Party (PUP) have traded terms governing through many election cycles of bitter partisan fights that merely entrench the status quo (Shoman 1987). His assertions that there is little to differentiate the two major parties and public disillusionment with both, arguably put the country in the category of an “electoral democracy” described by Diamond (2002) based on degrees of “freedom, fairness, inclusivity and meaningfulness of elections” (170), or what others call shallow democracy.
Shoman questioned whether our form of democracy has really made a difference in the lives of ordinary people back in 1987; I suggest his observations and questions are still true today. Both parties promise development, more jobs, better health care, better education and improved law and order. Who could be against any of those things? Yet both parties consistently lack a discernible ideological core to guide their platforms and implement policies that utilize Belize’s strengths to meet the challenges of a government framing and facilitating the development of the country.
Let us begin by considering the many changes which have occurred since Independence (in no particular order and with the understanding that this list is not exhaustive). The following areas are of particular significance:
Economic growth — particularly in tourism
Expansion of the media into local and international TV programming
Higher international visibility
Increased access to high school, technical and tertiary education
Growth in the arts, particularly local music.
Coupled with these changes, however, are the following challenges: the erosion of law, ordinances, codes and process enforcement (The law and rules are on paper, but the institutions either do not have the resources and/or are undermined by direct political interference.); increases in all categories of crimes, low apprehension (particularly for serious crimes), and prosecution rates; increasing homelessness. There is also extremely poor housing in many areas and vulnerability to climate change. Also, there are declining literacy rates (Both access to educational institutions and the quality of the education have contributed to this decline.); increasing unemployment and underemployment; increasing wealth disparities; declining public confidence in the governing institution; increasing public and private corruption; decreasing voter turnout, i.e., the percentage of the registered voters that go to the polls. This is in national and municipal elections.
Additionally, there is an increasingly demanding relationship with Guatemala, i.e. the involvement of the International Court of Justice; weakening of political parties, i.e., parties lack real ideology or vision; less internal democracy coupled with little real growth in party membership (Anecdotally, people do not see a real choice between the major political parties.); and de facto collusion between the major political parties that entrenches the status quo, e.g., when a new party majority takes the reins of power, the alleged illegalities of the former government are not properly investigated let alone prosecuted. No party will constrain its own power to promote better governance.
Despite the challenges, Belize has many protective factors with which to counter the challenges: The basic institutional infrastructure within which to implement reform (and not just tinkering) exists.
Belize has a very engaged/aware population. There is a free and competitive press, allowing communication with and among people throughout the country. While the economy is increasingly dependent on tourism, we have other natural resources, including agricultural land, oil and light manufacturing. There are active civic and charitable organizations of varying strengths and capacities.
There are wide-ranging laws for many important aspects of a modern state. Despite challenges in the educational system, the country is producing a cadre of qualified professionals that only need a reason to stay and invest their energies, contributing to the development of the country. Despite the brain drain, there is still a cadre of professionals and many other talented people.
These are not exhaustive lists, but a place to start. However, here we make several assumptions. First, there is an assumption that there is the political will for change within the political parties, in order to move beyond the entrenched status quo. Second, we are assuming the elite class is prepared to forgo pure self-interest and put the good of the Belizeans first. (Note that this is not a call for a socialist or communist state but a call for political and civic leadership and engagement in all levels of society).
Finally, we assume that all Belizeans are prepared for the pain of change.
Where we are today? Among 198 states in the international community, Belize is teetering at or below (depending on metric, source and topic) the middle of the pack. So, what does this mean and are we satisfied? The Global Policy forum defines a “failed state” as states that can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighboring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster. However, states fail not only because of internal factors. Foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse.1
With all this in mind, Belize is not a failed state (yet), but the elements are present. Arguably, nothing is inevitable, but I suggest the current course is unsustainable; without change, the likely outcome will at best be a contained intrastate conflict2 or at the worst absorption by Guatemala.
(To be continued)