Features — 11 February 2017 — by Nuri Akbar
Race, immigration and Belize’s black population

Let it be known that in the beginning the settlement that was to emerge as Belize, was fundamentally made possible by the sweat, blood, tears, labor, suffering, heroism and resiliency of the black man and woman.

In 1804 at the height of the Haitian Revolution a boat filled with our Haitian brothers and sisters appeared off the coast of the Belize settlement. They had requested permission to land, but the white British slave owners who administered the settlement refused this request and the boat was ushered away under arms. Despite their rivalry and quest for dominance in the so-called New World, this action by the British colonizers was in line with the European colonial powers in isolating and punishing the Haitians for setting the wrong example of liberation of the enslaved. This also set in motion what was to become a Belizean anti-black immigration policy and attitude that lingered from settlement to post- independence Belize.

While the black Haitians were rejected and turned away from settling in Belize, during the American Civil War of 1861-1865, white, Southern, racist, Confederate slave owners from the United States were allowed to resettle in what was then known as British Honduras (Belize).

In the early 1950’s the Mennonites, a white religious sect, was given permission to enter Belize and set up an autonomous settlement with its own agricultural communities, with their own schools, churches, health clinics, and even banks. Meanwhile, this model of agriculture-centered and cooperative approach to self-development advocated by local black Belizean small farmers from the Belize River Valley communities and such grassroots citizen groups as UBAD, BREDAA and more recently BGYEA, has been met with minimal support either from the public or private sector. In the case of BGYEA they were vilified, ridiculed, persecuted and deliberately blocked by various forms of impediments.

The British did permit the Garifuna to resettle in Belize in 1802. However, this was administered under “apartheid restrictions” that were designed to separate the so-called black Creoles from their Garifuna family. Negative stereotypes about the Garifuna were inculcated into the black Creole and other ethnicities as a way to maintain control and dominance over the colonial settlement. What had occurred on the island of Hispaniola and St. Vincent accentuated a recalcitrant attitude by the British who ruled Belize regarding the possibility of an African United alliance and revolt. The consequence of social engineering to create a mistrust and dislike between the black Creole and Garifuna continues to affect efforts in uniting despite both facing the real possibility of ethnic cleansing.

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and the prized African slaves began leaving plantations, the American Confederates who were allowed to resettle in Belize along with the British colonial rulers brought in East Indians as indentured laborers to work their sugarcane fields. The descendants of these early communities have been largely absorbed within the Belizean culture as opposed to the more recent East Indian arrival of the 1970’s.

Over the decades of the 1940’s spanning to the 1990’s various global and reginal events reverberated and impacted tiny Belize where immigration and refugee resettlements are concerned. In 1971, independent Uganda, which was a former British Protectorate colony, under its military leader, Idi Amin, ordered all Asian/East Indians, who dominated the merchant class but were not reinvesting in local communities, out of the African country. Some of the East Indians from Uganda entered Belize and eventually became dominant in the garment and apparel business. Likewise, immigrants from the Middle East and Asia from such places as Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, started out as small merchants dotting the landscape in different parts of the country in such small businesses as garment, footware and hardware stores. Unlike other immigrant groups, the Arab population exercised enormous political influence and prominence far greater proportionally than its small size. This culminated in 1998 when Said Musa became the first Prime Minister who was of Palestinian heritage. The Musa family has since emerged into a political “dynasty” with both father and son occupying seats in the Belize National Assembly.

In the 1950’s, in what some historians refer to as the Nationalist movement, the issue of race once again became central to the proposed establishment of the British West Indies Federation. The English-speaking Caribbean that included Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat and the St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and Trinidad were all predominantly black and English-speaking. Those leading the local political movement spilt over whether Belize should participate in the Federation, with prominent black leaders such as Philip Goldson and Leigh Richardson in favor, and George Price and Nicholas Pollard, Sr., etc., opposing. While there were other political variables that arguably contributed to the fierce opposition to Belize joining the West Indies Federation, contemporary history has proven that race played a significant role which did not coincide with Price’s vision of Latin American integration and accusations of flirting with Guatemala. These issues were so important to Goldson and Richardson that they never again aligned themselves with George Price and the People’s United Party (PUP). In the end, the Caribbean Federation failed, but ironically Belize would later seek refuge and support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in its dispute with Guatemala and quest for independence.

The welcome carpet for various non-black immigrants into Belize continued unabated over the past half century and reached a fever pitch in post-independence Belize. As the civil wars raged on in the various Central American republics, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with the cooperation of the Belize government, agreed to accept Salvadorian refugees. Today their population has grown to between three to ten thousand. Guatemala for its part, which maintained its unfounded territorial claim to half of Belizean land mass, continue to encourage its rural peasants to cross illegally into Belize. The two major political parties who have dominated local politics in Belize’s modern political history are both guilty of recruiting illegal Guatemalans and using them for votes during election times. Indeed, the current Barrow administration is holding hearings on the matter of fast tracking legalization/registration in time for the last general election. Most likely absolutely nothing will become of these various hearings and nobody will be held accountable. The number and size of the Guatemalan population which has been granted Belizean citizenship is anybody’s guess. But this reckless and total disregard for the nation’s current constitution by hirelings could be the Achilles Heel when the country holds a referendum on whether to take the age-old Guatemalan claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In the early 1980’s the issue of whether Belize should accept Haitian refugees who were fleeing the tyrannical brutality of the Duvalier regime again became a heated political topic. The local opponents regurgitated the same racist stereotypes such as voodoo, backward culture and race to make their arguments. Unlike the other non-black refugees and immigrants who were allowed into the country, ultimately the Haitians were rejected and refused asylum in Belize. It is important to note that leading the charge against the Haitians were many “royal” black Creoles and mulattos.

The so-called “economic citizenship” scam initiated in the 1980’s and 1990’s sent hirelings, career politicians and lawyers who saw a windfall for personal wealth into a frenzy. With the advent of Hong Kong being returned to the jurisdiction of Mainland China, thousands of Chinese were welcomed into Belize. The commercial capital, Belize City, became saturated with Chinese grocery stores and fast-food outlets. This sudden influx had cultural and sociological consequences. A substantial among of these new businesses were located in predominantly black and economically-depressed communities. Chinese culture by definition is influenced by Confucianism, which is a strength of their civilization that has survived for thousands of years. No matter where the Chinese find themselves on the globe, they will create a Chinatown which is a reflection of their ability to practice group economics and espoused self-identity. Because of this isolationism, few jobs or reinvesting in the local communities were manifested by their presence, and tensions increased. Several Chinese businesses were the targets of attacks and robbery. It reached a boiling point when several Chinese were victims of violent robberies and in a unified display of protest, Chinese shut down their places of business citywide. The relationship between the Chinese immigrants who operate businesses within the black community and the natives largely remains an uneasy coexistence.

The invasion of white Americans accelerated after Belize gained its independence in 1981 and with the coming to power of the pro-American UDP government in 1984. The Americans and some Europeans are concentrated in the tourist industry and completely dominate this sector. Exclusive, miniature city-states have flourished on the many islands and cayes off the Belizean mainland. Most natives have never set foot on some of these gated properties and few Belizeans are aware of how many of these islands have been sold off to wealthy Europeans and Americans. Choice properties in places like Placencia, Cayo and Stann Creek Valley, thousands of acres of prime lands, have been sold to white Americans and Europeans. The various travel magazines in America and Europe are flooded with ads with such titles as “Buy your own private island in paradise,” and so on. These resorts hire few blacks and they are mostly used as exotic caricatures for inquisitive tourists. Because of the very nature of the tourist business, the capital flows outward with little or no direct investment and impact on the local communities.

On September 12th 2003, the first ever Belize Black Summit was held which was organized jointly by the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF) and the World Garifuna Organization (WGO). This was a historic summit that brought together Belize’s two largest black communities, the Creole and Garifuna, to seriously self-examine and formulate a way forward to solving the insurmountable challenges facing the two black populations of Belize. Nearly sixteen years later, thousands of black Belizeans continue to fall behind in almost every sphere. The prison is filled with predominantly young black males, and the black males are expected to die young and violently. The educational paradigm continues to fail young black males and females disproportionately. It is widely believed by many that if there is not an urgent intervention beyond the old, traditional approaches to addressing the level of violent deaths of young black males, the black population in Belize is facing extinction.

If there is any criticism that can be made of the Black Summit held in 2003, it would be that the organizers did not see the importance and relevancy of incorporating the Belizean diaspora. The challenges facing black people in Belize now require a coordinated effort that will involve the Belizean black population with its extended family in the diaspora. One cannot wait for the other to embrace: we do not have the luxury of time anymore. The history of black Belizeans is written in sweat, blood, tears, labor, suffering, heroism and resiliency, and we owe it to ourselves and ancestors to rise to the occasion. The survival of our people can no longer hinge on the hope that career hirelings will come to our salvation. We must return to that place of eternal hope that made it possible for the African slaves to survive humankind’s most horrific holocaust – the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

There is no place to run other than within each other’s arms. In unity, there is strength. The struggle continues.

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