On Friday, September 21, Belize celebrates its 31st anniversary of independence from Great Britain.
All our neighbours, beginning with Mexico in the north to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the south, were ruled by Spain. Only Mexico fought Spain for its independence, but like all its neighbours, with the exception of Belize and Costa Rica, suffered through a civil war to cement that independence.
We all know what are normally the main causes of civil wars – perceived injustices of one group of citizens against the other, sometimes ethnic, sometimes political, sometimes a combination of both, and there is always bloodshed, no matter who wins the war.
Mexico’s war of independence from Spain lasted from 1810 to 1821, while the Caste War of Yucatán, in which the native Maya people of Yucatán fought against the population of European descent, called Yucatecos, who held political and economic control of the region, lasted from 1847 to 1901.
Honduras, home to several important indigenous cultures, most notably the Maya, became independent in 1821. Much of the country had been conquered by Spain, which ruled it for about 300 years; and in the ensuing 191 years since independence, nearly 300 small internal rebellions and civil wars have occurred in the country.
Guatemala became independent from Spain in 1821, but the late 20th century saw the country embroiled in a 36-year-long civil war that reportedly saw 200,000 persons killed – many of whom just disappeared.
El Salvador also declared its independence from Spain in 1821, and experienced numerous revolutions and wars against other Central American republics. From 1931 to 1979 El Salvador was ruled by a series of military dictatorships, and also suffered a 12-year civil war.
As an aside, in 1969, El Salvador invaded Honduras after Honduran landowners deported several thousand Salvadorans. The four-day war became known as the “football war” because it broke out during a soccer game between the two countries.
Nicaragua too achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, but it has since undergone periods of political unrest, dictatorship, and fiscal crisis—the most notable causes that led to the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
Costa Rica, like its neighbours in Central America, never fought for independence from Spain, an independence it received on September 15, 1821. But unlike nearly all its neighbours, and like Belize, it never had a civil war.
So, Belize, without shedding a drop of blood in either a civil war or in fighting for its independence, celebrates its anniversary on Friday. This is not to say that meaningful independence cannot be achieved without bloodshed, but we must make the salient point that compared to the rest, Belize has been an oasis of peace since her independence.
But the question is now pertinent: after 31 years of ruling ourselves, what do we celebrate? The Prime Minister’s Independence Day address will no doubt be a message of “hope.” He will catalogue the accomplishments of his government, gloss over his failures and predict a rosy future – and the rank-and-file will clap and stand in line to shake his hand.
But such have been all our Independence Day addresses, which some consider to be the Prime Minister’s most important address of the year.
In the real world, however, what do we celebrate? The truth of the matter is that criminals and narco-traffickers commit murder with seeming impunity, effectively putting the nation’s largest city under siege; poverty now sits at 43 percent; the cost of living has skyrocketed; many of our nation’s children go hungry; the cost of education has risen to crippling heights; we are faced with the repayment of a billion-dollar super-bond, courtesy of a corrupt past administration; political corruption and corruption in high places continue to eat away at our scarce natural and financial resources; wishy-washy government policies allow Guatemalans almost a free hand at our western border – they continue to steal our precious xate and our gold; our pristine forests are being decimated by illegal logging; our protected wildlife continue to be killed for food, and the list could go on.
The “real” is that this is what Belizeans face after 31 years of independence, of governing ourselves. We have opined in previous editorials that the real heroes of our independence would “turn over in their graves” if they could see what their beloved Belize has become, because of bumbling, inept, self-aggrandizing politicians on both sides.
Belize, it seems today, has become somewhat of a painful place to live, despite our tradition of peace. Yes, the pain a single mother feels when she cannot put enough food on the table for her children, when she cannot meet her monthly bills, when she cannot buy the necessary school books for her children because education has become so expensive, when her children are sick and she cannot afford the medicines, is very real pain – nothing that rhetorical political speeches can assuage.
In this discussion, it has to be recognized that crime has become perhaps the single most important issue of the day. Our young men are killing each other, and they do not discriminate. They kill innocent citizens with equal readiness and heartlessness.
The “real” on crime statistics is that each year now, on average, 120-plus persons, mostly young men, are murdered. There are cold-blooded criminals walking free on our streets, and their numbers seem to increase almost from month to month; while the deadly crimes go unpunished, our government, without consulting the people, has ceased to hang murderers.
Despite all these terrible things, however, we feel that the Belizean people, by and large, are good people, friendly, intelligent, hardworking and ambitious. And we have love for one another, despite the seeming mayhem. We also believe that better will come. When, we cannot say for sure, but we know that to tolerate much worse is unthinkable.
If we think about it, perhaps the blood running in our streets is our “civil war,” our test of not so much where we are right now, but how badly we want a better future for our children and grandchildren. We really believe that no one would deliberately choose to live under siege, being shot in our places of business, being afraid to venture out after dark, and to live in fear of our lives in our very own homes.
Criminals and crime have impacted our economy to the point where our government cannot collect the revenue it should, because too many businesses in the old capital have closed down – their owners are tired of being robbed, and many have been shot to death in such robberies. The ruling politicians continue, meanwhile, to “play games,” refusing to appoint an outsider as a commissioner of police to deal with manifest corruption in the ranks of the police department.
We all want a better life after 31 years of so-called political and economic independence, but we have to fight for it, in the same way that the heroes of so many revolutions fought for a better life. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Belizeans all, mere speeches will achieve nothing much. Words are like the wind, and so are promises.
That is what the celebration of our 31st anniversary of Independence should be about for our people – recognizing where we have failed, and seriously planning for a better future.
And mark our words: not only will these things not be given to us freely, but it is a battle that must be fought by the people, and not politicians, who traditionally have resisted any change not connected to the enlargement of their personal wealth.
We have spoken. All power to the people.
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I do not use drugs nor do I condone the use or selling of it. But Law