Belize’s first prime minister, Rt. Hon. George Price, promised the Belizean people that with independence, development would come, and in the area of infrastructure, it certainly has.
Thirty-nine years after independence there are grand homes in some areas where small wooden houses once stood, and bed and breakfast guest houses now share overnight tourists with five-star hotels, the tallest of these grand hotels being the eight-storey Renaissance Tower and Golden Tree Hotel in Belize City, both listed at 95 feet tall according to the database, Emporis. No building in modern Belize has yet eclipsed the Mayan temple, Xunantunich, 130 feet, or the main pyramid at Caracol, 141 feet, but we are getting there.
Grand buildings are not the only physical improvements we have seen in Belize since we got our independence on September 21, 1981. Relatively good highways now link all the towns and cities on the mainland, and all-weather bridges have replaced many which submerged at times during the rainy season.
Development has come to the media. Belize has always had a number of newspapers, but prior to independence there was only one radio station, government-owned. It took all of eight years after independence for the country to get a privately owned local radio station, Krem, in 1989, and now there are about a dozen. There was no live television in Belize prior to 1981; now there are at least six television stations.
Prior to independence BTL was BTA. One in ten adult Belizeans had a phone before independence, now you have to go to the farthest villages to find an adult Belizean who doesn’t have one.
Prior to 1981 Belize prized students who went to universities abroad (there was no university in Belize, only junior colleges) to study agronomy, medicine, and engineering. There are now two full-fledged universities in Belize, and the focus is now on producing lawyers, accountants and tour guides.
Prior to 1981 students who left the country to study abroad mostly went to the UK, USA, Mexico and the Caribbean, but since independence an increasing number of students are going to Cuba, and recently also to Taiwan.
Pre-independence Belize provided primary health care for free or at a small cost. Just around independence, on June 1, 1981, to be precise, Belize set up a social security scheme which covers some health care costs for workers. An attempt after independence to implement a National Health Insurance system has not been very successful.
Most Belizeans don’t have private health insurance. More than 50% of Belizeans have to seek assistance from wealthy folk and sell barbequed meals to raise funds when they need secondary or tertiary health care. It was so prior to independence, and so it is now.
The economy has grown, but the standard of living for the masses has not improved. Far too many Belizeans still live in sub-standard houses, and far too many have little or no savings.
The citrus and sugar industries formed the backbone of our productive sector prior to independence, and they continue to be mainstays, though they are now struggling — citrus because of a bacterial disease and sugar because of deflated prices. Marine produce, particularly lobster and conch, continues to be a major earner of foreign exchange. A new banana industry which started a few years before independence was privatized in the mid-1980s, and it has become one of the pillars of our economy.
A new industry, farmed shrimp, took off toward the turn of the last century, but it has since fallen on hard times because of a virus. A papaya industry started a few years after independence, and at its peak it was contributing up to $20 million in foreign exchange, but it has since shut down. Tourism became the biggest industry in Belize after independence.
Crime has increased, and there has been little improvement in how the country is governed. The Belize of colonial times was not free of petty crimes and violence against women, but murder was not rampant, as it is today. Belize, which was once considered a peaceful haven, now has a murder rate that puts it among the most violent ten nations on the earth.
Our governance system was effectively a dictatorship before independence, and while there have been some reforms to the system, substantially nothing has changed. Every representative of the ruling party is a minister or minister-of-state, so we are missing one of the foundation pieces of the parliamentary system, back benchers. Despite introducing four non-partisan senators to the Senate, the government retains control of that body.
Belize voted to go to the International Court of Justice to resolve the almost century-old Guatemalan claim, and we expect when the verdict comes it will be in favor of the people who inhabit the Jewel.
Belize’s artists – painters, sculptors, writers, musicians — have always been talented and productive; however, their hard work didn’t translate to financial success before independence, and it hasn’t since then.
We are not doing very well in sports, partly because of lack of interest/investment. Our softball girls are no longer the queens of Central America and the Caribbean, and only once has any of our football teams qualified to participate in the regional Gold Cup. Our basketball is respected in Central America and the Caribbean, but we need to invest more in developing talent at home.
One mark of progress in the area of sports is that our best footballers and basketball players get some remuneration for their talent and hard work, thanks to those two sports now having semi-professional leagues.
In regards to culture, Tata Duhende, Braa Anansi, Sapodilla Tom, the Xtabai, and other local folklore heroes were fighting for their place in our hearts before independence, but now the domination from abroad, specifically the USA, is near complete. Most homes in Belize have television sets, and the foreign content overwhelms local productions. Our fledgling movie industry, started after independence, has barely gotten off the ground.
All is not well in Belize on our 39th birthday, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacting every aspect of our lives, but Belizeans are still very hopeful about their future. If you asked Belizeans what the country needs most, they quite likely would place less corruption in government, more transparency in governance, and more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, at the top of the list.
Thirty-nine years ago we were promised that there would be more development when we got our independence, and in a few areas we have seen progress, but in too many areas we have languished, or regressed. Much remains to be done, but we do have some triumphs. Happy 39th birthday, Belize!