It’s a distinct handicap in business here to be a person of roots ancestry, as opposed to being of immigrant background. If you are in any kind of business, our Belizean people expect you to be always in possession of liquid cash, and they have developed a habit, which has become almost obsessive, of asking for money. Our people do not ask the immigrant business people for money because they know they will not receive any. But, when they see a native business person, the request has become almost automatic, and sometimes it is practically demanding.
In competitive businesses which require various kinds of machines and equipment, like ours on Partridge Street, you are always seeking to accumulate capital so as to update your machinery and equipment. The more modern your machines are, the higher the quality of the product you can deliver to your customers, and the more competitive your business will be. The more competitive your business is, the more you will be able to expand, which means the more jobs you can create.
In between charity and outright extortion, however, native businesses in poor neighborhoods suffer an amount of capital hemorrhaging on a daily and weekly basis which makes capital formation more difficult to achieve. It is impossible to explain this to the individual supplicant, because he or she considers his/her situation to be critical, and the supplicant really does not want to hear you are trying to buy a machine which will make your newspaper look better or your radio station sound cleaner. No, no, no. Gimme money, right now!
I remember when we were growing up as children, we used to have this saying when we didn’t want to share with our friends at school or our siblings at home: who beg, no get; who no beg, no want. In adult Belize during my childhood and adolescence, however, begging was simply not a way of life. Families came together to take care of their needy, and it was considered a disgrace for any family member, whether child or adult, to be begging from other people.
The reason we could sustain this kind of code as a people, even though we were a poor people where money and material goods were concerned, was because our community spirit was totally cooperative, socialist even. As a result of Belizean families being so extended, there were interlocking connections which made it so that the well-off were linked to the poor. Belize was very small, and all of us were related, if not by blood, then by religion, lodge, club, or the compadre/comadre system.
I remember that there were two sections of my father’s family who were considered well-off. These would have been the Seymour Vernon and Swaapy Tillett families. The wives in these two families were both daughters of one Oliver Cromwell Hyde, who was my paternal grandfather’s half-brother. (Incidentally, Bill Lindo was a member of the Swaapy Tillett family, a grandson of Mr. Tillett, and raised with a gold spoon in his mouth.) At the Bolton Bridge corner of Regent Street West and West Canal where I grew up, we ate every day, but we were materially inferior to the aforementioned Vernon and Tillett families. At the same time, we had poor relatives whom my mother would help with our old clothes and other things.
I cannot recall our ever seeking assistance from the Vernon or Tillett families, but I suppose they would have helped if there had been an emergency. In the case of the most dramatic emergency of our generation – Hurricane Hattie in October of 1961, almost everyone had to seek assistance from a food and clothes supply program run by the government authorities.
There was no tradition of begging in Belize when I was growing up. Today, there is, and most observers believe it is directly related to the system of political “clinics” and “welfare” constituencies which party politics introduced into our community.
I believe that the first general election where Belizeans saw money and material gifts being used extravagantly to bribe voters, was the June 1993 general election. Since that time, we have seen where many voters have become openly cynical. They expect to be paid for their votes, so that they do not see this as begging: they consider payment to be a right in line with what they see as the nature of the political process.
It is absolutely incredible to hear the one political party accusing the other of these election crimes, because we know that both parties are guilty of the same thing. They learned and learn from each other, and in the culture they have jointly created here, begging has become ingrained in our community, and, to repeat, sometimes the begging is flavored with demand.
The thing is, many of the requests/demands are preceded by, or come along with, a request for a job. So then, the native entrepreneur who is seeking capital formation for business improvement and expansion, finds himself in a quandary. The same community he is seeking to improve with job creation, is making it difficult to achieve the requisite capital formation.
What we have here is, to a great extent, is a question of development philosophy. The native entrepreneur cannot practice free market capitalism in the same cold-blooded way his immigrant competition can, because the native is too close to the community, hence the greater pressure from charity and the greater exposure to extortion. So then, how are we natives to develop our community using free market capitalism when our community’s socialist traditions and lifestyle give a clear advantage to those of our competitors who are in a position to practice the cold-blooded version of capitalism because they are strangers?
In Belize we are always asking the question: where are the Belizean businesses? One of the answers is that Belizeans are handicapped because we have to practice a form of community socialism at the same time as the capitalist system is emphasizing the absolute bottom line. Think about it.
Power to the people.