To the best of our recollection, it was in 1987 that the first official case of AIDS was recorded in Belize. Since that time, thousands and thousands of our citizens have died of this dreaded disease, most of them in the prime of their lives. AIDS has indeed been a terrible scourge in The Jewel, and the family members of victims are often so traumatized that they very seldom admit the true cause of death. They will say “pneumonia,” or “respiratory failure,” or even “diabetes.”
This type of deception even takes place in the mighty United States of America, where the newspaper obituaries for younger deceased often do not specifically mention cause of death, or refer to the said pneumonia or respiratory failure.
When AIDS first entered communist Cuba, Fidel Castro, as brilliant and as forceful as he was, immediately understood the very grave danger this new disease posed to his island population and to the delicate Cuba economy. He employed draconian measures against AIDS, including the frightening quarantine. Compared to Belize, Cuba won its fight against AIDS, while maintaining a liberal sexual lifestyle.
We cannot even attempt to quantify the financial cost of AIDS to Belizean families and the Belizean state since 1987. That cost must surely be in the billions of dollars. But the stakeholders and experts in the Belizean fight against AIDS almost never analyze the devastating costs of the disease. The focus has always been, perhaps understandably so, on the health implications, individually and collectively.
But Belize’s range of options in the fight against AIDS was always limited by The Jewel’s commitment to individual behavioral freedom. The sexual lifestyles of Belize’s young people overall are more than free: our sexual lifestyles are licentious. Remember, the two generations before AIDS had been freed up sexually by the birth control pill and antibiotics. Then came AIDS.
Fighting AIDS effectively would probably have meant giving up some of the sexual freedom Belizeans had enjoyed in the post-World War II years. Belize could not copy the Cuban tactics against AIDS, because we were so free. In that sense and in this fight, our freedom constrained us. We were so free we could not fight AIDS effectively. In 2016, we can condemn Fidel’s methods in Cuba’s war against AIDS, but we surely cannot question his results.
In Belize, there have always been far more audio and video advertisements and publicity promoting sexual activity than audio and video material being disseminated to increase awareness of AIDS. We have paid the price for this ambivalence. When one is young, one is horrified by the thought of being left out of the action, the thought of being “square,” the thought of being weird. In Belize, in spite of the catastrophic arrival of AIDS, we essentially preserved the sexual promiscuity we had cultivated after the pill and penicillin. The result has been the carnage of AIDS. We made a free choice in Belize: we can see now that we chose disease and death.
The type of freedoms we have and say we enjoy in Belize used to exist in Cuba before the Revolution in 1959. The casinos we love so in Belize used to flourish in Cuba before Fidel. The same tourism–focused lifestyle Belize has now embraced, was the feature attraction of Cuba before Castro. Pre-Castro, tourism-dominated Cuba, however, was an absolute wreck at its social base. Today, after the Revolution, every Cuban is literate and educated, Cubans do not murder each other in the streets, there is no drug problem in Cuba, and Cuba is basically free of AIDS. Backward, violent, unhealthy Belize is free: progressive Cuba is not. Or, so we would say.
In fact, a newspaper such as this would not be allowed to exist in Cuba. That is for sure. The question is, if we could enjoy all the benefits of the Cuban Revolution, would we not be willing to sacrifice some of our vaunted freedoms? Who knows?
Fidel’s critics scream that Cuba is not free, but Cubans are not afraid of each other as they move about in their daily lives. In Belize, we extol our freedoms, but we are deathly scared of each other. We cannot even hold social events in Belize without massive security. We run across to Chetumal every opportunity we get. Over the border at Subteniente Lopez, we feel free. In our own Belizean streets, we tremble. How free are we at home, if we are not free of fear?
The question is an academic one: it has no relevance to Belize’s constitutional democracy as expressed in our electoral politics. As much as we at this newspaper cherish the Belize Progressive Party (BPP), it has been the case here that the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the People’s United Party (PUP) run things political. Fu you, fu me; red today, blue tomorrow; and so on and so forth. The party changes inside the PUDP duopoly are no consequence: our community and societal fear remains. In fact, it has grown worse since 1987. Much worse. Inexorably worse.
There was a generation of Belizeans in 1969 that had a revolutionary vision. This newspaper was the voice of that generation, but in 1973 that generation divided and fought against itself. We can see now, beyond much doubt, that young Belizeans made a pro-American decision in 1973, and such a thinking remains the majority thinking. America in Belize was what we wanted, and America in Belize was what we got.
We Belizeans learned nothing from the Cuban experience. Today, Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States has many of us nervous. When AIDS entered The Jewel from America in 1987, we should have gotten nervous, very nervous. Apparently, we did not. In fact, it was not long after AIDS that the Crips and Bloods migrated south from California to The Jewel. AIDS and gangs were both “Made In America.” We took too long to react in Belize, and our reaction has still not been satisfactory. In fact, it may be said that our Belizean society has been overwhelmed by AIDS and gangs.
No ruling UDP politician in Belize can criticize the Cuban Revolution, as we heard a prominent Minister do last week on national radio, without simultaneously admitting that the present day socio-economic realities in Belize are frightening. This is real.