When Belize became independent in 1981, the world was undergoing one of the worst economic crises in its history. Virtually all countries of the world and especially small developing countries were strongly affected by the sharpest economic decline since World War II. World GDP growth that averaged around 4 percent in the 1970s fell to just over 2 percent in 1980 and further dropped to 1.2 percent in 1981. Oil prices sharply increased as world trade fell from an average of 7 percent in the period 1976-79 to 1.5 percent in 1980 and near 0 percent in 1981. The crisis plunged hundreds of millions of people and entire regions into to greater poverty.
This adverse situation also placed Belize on the brink of economic collapse. Prices of its major exports fell drastically on the world market. For example, sugar, which comprised over 60 percent of Belize’s exports and which showed US 30 cents per pound in the spot market in 1980, fell to US 7 cents per pound in 1984. According to Central Bank statistics, Belize’s real GDP growth rate also fell from 2.2 percent in 1981 to minus 0.8% in 1982 and minus 1.6 percent in 1983. Unable to meet its obligations to its people, the government was forced arrange a stand-by agreement with the IMF.
Within this context, the PUP administration, which had won every general election prior to independence, also had to grapple with deep divisions in its leadership while it faced widespread public perception of being corrupt, oppressive, wasteful and incompetent. When the first post-independence elections were held in December 1984, the UDP won 21 out of 28 seats in a landslide victory.
The economic policy of the new UDP administration became focused on rescuing the economy. This included building a confident investment climate, repaying all debt arrears and increasing revenues. During this period, which was also a time of major civil unrest and wars in Central America, the UDP administration was viewed by the US government as one more favorably aligned to its economic policies. Consequently, the US played a major role in directing Belize’s economic and social policy. The UDP administration’s strong commitment to capitalist and neoliberal economic policies attracted major support and millions of dollars in loans and grants from the US government. Economic policies became focused on developing the private sector and also making Belize’s land and resources available to foreign investors.
What later emerged as Belize changed from UDP to PUP administrations following each election, was a blurred difference as both major political parties became committed to the neoliberal economic model. Taxes were also raised; workers were retrenched. Economic opportunities and benefits that gave greater benefits to foreign investors and the new colonial Creole and Mestizo elites did not effectively trickle down to the masses of native Belizeans. The widening economic disparities were revealed through high levels of poverty, high unemployment, low educational attainment and its consequent social ills, such as very high levels of crime and violence.
The character of Belize’s political economy through 32 years of its independence can be summarized on the part of foreign interests in two words: Buy Belize. Since independence, successive PUP and UDP government administrations became engaged in selling almost all of Belize’s assets to foreign interests. Between 1985 and 1986, Belize sold off 750,000 acres of land to US nationals, including 685,000 acres (an area 6 times the size of Barbados) to the Coca Cola corporation. Belize’s land prices became out of reach for native Belizeans. Most, if not virtually all, of Belize’s prime beachfront properties and cayes became held by foreign owners. In the Toledo District large areas of land were issued to a Malaysian logging company for indiscriminate exploitation while the Mayas were (and are still) denied their land rights. Belize’s citizenship was also placed on sale through an economic citizenship program that primarily targeted the Asian markets.
All major sea ports (Belize City, Commerce Bight and PG), Belize Electricity Ltd., B.T. L., pristine watershed for an ineffective hydroelectric dam, government printer, government houses, were all sold out to the major benefit of foreign entities and local elites. The granting of secret licenses to various offshore oil interests, despite environmental concerns, and the exclusion of genuine consultation with Belizeans, are more evidence of the preference of Belize’s leaders to serving foreign interests.
Belize’s new thrust to expand its current scale of cruise tourism while disregarding a well-reasoned plan for sustainable tourism, underscores that Belize continues to be for sale. Just when there seems nothing much left to sell, Belize’s culture is being packaged for sale to an unsustainably increasing and environmentally destructive cruise tourism market. In other words, having not realized any substantial benefits from national economic policies, or the citrus and banana industries that prefer to import cheap labor from neighboring republics; having not benefited from the natural deep water port at Commerce Bight, southern Belizeans facing rising unemployment and poverty and virtually ignored in opportunities to further their human development, are being marketed to dance jonkunu for the cruise tourists.
Essentially, rather than creating a new inclusive society for the development and benefit of all Belizeans, Belize’s independence has been merely a changing of the guard from one form of colonialism to the next, with the past colonial shackles becoming further deeply entrenched. Only this time the process has been facilitated by our own Belizean political leaders. One can only imagine the response of some of our leaders to a similar temptation as when the devil told Jesus, “I shall give you all the power and glory… and all this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Belize’s economic policy reflects a similar pattern to its history. Under slavery and colonialism, the masters and colonial rulers saw Belize as a place to extract logwood, then mahogany and agricultural products for their benefit. The slaves and later the “natives” were used merely as compliant laborers and the natural resources exploited to further enrich these European masters and countries. New colonialists are also seeking to extract their wealth from Belize, without any care about the well being of Belizeans or Belize’s environment.
Like virtually all post-colonial societies, including several African and Caribbean countries, Belize’s economy reflects the absence of a successful business owning class among the Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples. This is the result of a deliberate colonial practice which allocated business licenses to Europeans and Indians while prohibiting the “natives” (through various barriers of access to capital) from participating in commerce. The colonial legacy is such that colonial elites and their offspring control the industrial and commercial sectors, gain access to capital, and capture the benefit of the wealth (earned, inherited or illegally derived) while Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples remain servants and are denied opportunities for upward mobility. It is no wonder that Belize continues to be for sale for exploitation by foreign interests. Recently, a wave of Chinese grocery and restaurant businesses have virtually dominated every town in Belize, and wiped out virtually every budding similar native enterprise while hardly offering any employment opportunity to Belizeans.
The critical key to shifting this downward spiraling trend that Belize faces is leadership. For too long, dysfunctional leaders have been so prevalent as to create a climate that led to ineptitude and corruption that has messed up our national development, leaving the masses to pay for their iniquities. Dysfunctional leadership is evident when government Ministers or heads of departments set up themselves as egocentric despots dressing in the emperor’s new clothes, and who suddenly know all the answers, thus preventing consultation and reasoned dialog toward transformation. It is also evident when year after year the public is forced to suffer gross inefficiencies, such as at the lands and vital statistics departments, with hardly any serious commitment made towards serving the people with professionalism and respect.
The lack of urgent state intervention to stop the daily, brazen and illegal incursions at the Chiquibul National Park, the failure to close loopholes and undertake reforms to make our governance system more accountable to prevent those corrupt leaders from gaining access to plunder the country’s resources for selfish gain, are evidence of an institutionalized dysfunctional leadership that continues to compromise the integrity of Belize’s independence and hurt the well-being of native Belizeans. Left unchecked, Belize could further erode to socioeconomic disaster.
Yet one must applaud every remarkable accomplishment that advances the nation towards prosperity. Saving the country from paying 88 million dollars resulting from shady corrupt deals, establishing a national bank to provide affordable credit to Belizeans, and other such initiatives must be highly commended. There is still the urgent need to undertake structural and political reforms.
Following Belize’s 150 years of slavery and 150 years of colonialism, it is critical that our leaders of both political parties, civil society and the general public engage in serious dialog and deliberate actions to ensure genuine reform of our governance, education and other institutions of our society. We have no time to waste. The global and domestic economic situation calls for sound leadership. After all that sale of Belize’s assets (including citizenship), poverty and unemployment are still at unacceptable levels. Belizeans have been alienated and hurt by political silliness, victimization, arrogance, corruption and the sale of our national assets.
Until we, the people, learn to reject dysfunctional leadership, tighten our system and embrace those who are committed to transform our nation, and who desire to serve instead of seeking to be served, who have the sound character and integrity to deeply care about well-being of Belizeans, we will continue to see Belize being re-colonized and shoved further down the road of suffering while the few further enrich themselves, their families and foreign interests. The power is within to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” “None but ourselves can free our minds” to make the wealth untold that nature has blest, also be cherished and enjoyed by Belizeans.