Features — 03 July 2019 — by Dr. Harold Young
Is failure an option? – The canary in the coal mine

“I kno I dah nuttiin but ah wah betta fi mi daata.” — Young male Belizean (name withheld), June 2019.

Getting into my barber’s chair is always a priority. The “trim” is usually accompanied by spirited conversations with other barbers and clients. The topics run the gamut. Sports, weather, sex and of course domestic and international politics merge and intertwine at various junctures, highlighted with grand gestures, fist-bumping and laughter.

Not recently!! First, my barber’s 21-year-old son was murdered — no arrest (no justice), then his 24-year-old daughter died from complications of an enlarged heart. All this in 6 months while he works 10 hours a day from Sunday to Sunday.

He is not part of the cloistered elite or any other group disparaged by the elite. I don’t need to even say his name. He is a hero and icon in his own right.

The term “elite” is grounded in a long history of study in political science. It springs from the great notion of having a “guardian” class of rulers or the best among us, to govern. This minority forms the leadership in a society and is studied in political science as elite theory.

Elite theory can be defined as the perspective that a small minority of people are arguably best suited to handle public affairs, and that this arrangement is inevitable in modern societies (Maloy). Lasswell and Lerner point out that understanding the role of the elite is indispensable to understanding politics and the processes by which we are governed.

We should also note that the term elite includes those with political, economic/business, educational, law enforcement, faith/religious, national defense and bureaucratic power and/or influence.

The elite, therefore, serves the source of its power and authority while working against democracy, because it has faith in the rule of the few. It rejects the idea of rule by the people in general (Johari, p.104).

Therefore, Maurice Duverger suggests that “government of the people and by the people must be replaced by another formula, ‘Government of people by an elite sprung from the people’” (p. 425).

At the expense of being an alarmist (or offending), I suggest that Belize is teetering on the precipice of being a failed state. The Fund for Peace developed the Fragile State Index.

Based on these indicators, Belize is rated 115th out of 177 countries. Worsening from 2007 to 2017, we are one stage below ‘Warning’ (but not in ‘Stable’ category) and one step in front of Guatemala, who is in the Warning stage.

Further, the Belizean elites are more factionalized, according to the Index, with a score which declined from 5/10 in 2007 to 4.3/10 in 2017.

Further, the Global Policy Forum  defines a failed state as follows: Failed states can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighboring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

However, states fail not only because of internal factors. Foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse.

With all this in mind, Belize is not a failed state (yet), but the elements are present. When death of a tourist elicits more of a response from the elite than the death of multiple Belizeans (seemingly judged as disposable), there is a problem.

Further, I am not totally buying the argument that the tourist industry is way more important. It is important, but the industry does little directly for the underbelly of socio-economic desperation that drives some major problems in Belize. The capital is being made by the elite (and mostly foreign) with some below gaining mostly meager $ service, labor and supply employment.

I’m not disrespecting the contribution of this important industry, but my 2 cents is that we need a reset on how we value human life vs the all-mighty dollar. Exemplary is the silence of the Belize Medical and Dental Association (BMA) on the absence of a public psychiatric facility and appropriate services, which is deafening and horrifying.

Nestor Vasquez, those in prison and many others wandering the streets, deserve better. This is the forte of the BMA, but where is this group of elite? Belizeans, Our lives Matter too!! Arguably, nothing is inevitable, but I suggest the current course is unsustainable without change, or the likely outcome, will at best be a contained intrastate conflict (civil war) or outright anarchy. The canary is on the floor gasping.

So, the data does reflect the bleak aspects and the reality we experience. But what is the mood of the elite? Anecdotally, my encounters in different settings reveal some unsettling sentiments. I make no assumption as to how, widely held they are, but the fact that these are raised in disparate social groups is serious enough for concern.

While acknowledging increasing disparities, the poor are blamed for being lazy and unambitious. While I do see some people idle (some are “holding the lane”), most were working or hustling in some fashion.

Second, the idea of employing government-sanctioned extrajudicial executions (a la the Philippines) is considered viable as a crime-fighting alternative. Let’s see how they like it when one of their loved ones is summarily executed by the policy they advocate, only because they feel immune.

Third, people not born in Belize are regarded with suspicion unless they are Caucasian (or wealthy).

Fourth, universal adult suffrage is questioned, i.e., people considered “stupid” by the elite should not be allowed to vote (echoes of eugenics which underpinned the Holocaust).

Fifth, the government needs to be more authoritative at the expense of civil rights and freedoms. “Brush downs” (stop and frisk) for no reason other than location and physical appearance are unconstitutional.

Yet, those who think this is justified “fi deh bwai” complain bitterly about police checkpoints as they sit in an A/C SUV.

Sixth, people do not feel safe unless walled in at home. Ironically, both gangs and the elite have “turfs” and “no go” zones.

Seventh, general disgust with politicians (part of the political elite) is warranted for lack of political vision and will.

Arguably, nothing is inevitable, but I suggest the current course is unsustainable without change, or the likely outcome will be, at best, a contained intrastate conflict (civil war) or outright anarchy. The canary is on the floor gasping.

The big question is, how do all citizens (the vote-eligible public) ensure that our interests are not ignored, and democracy is not undermined? There is no silver bullet. I humbly suggest that a part of the answer rests with the elite.

What is expected of the elite, therefore, is that statespersons step forward (and not only run for office, but in any public capacity), who put the general welfare before self-interests of self and the few. Countries like Belize have a plethora of politicians, but a shortage of statespersons.

Policy development with consistent and equitable implementation must be focused on the most good for the most people. None of this is to say that individuals or some civic groups do not do good works, but Belize is at the point where it must be more widespread, coordinated and focused to address the systemic problems of unaccountability, corruption, and disparities that drive societal problems.

In closing, I repeat the final paragraph of my last two articles (Amandala, June 7 & 21, 2019) as a challenge to us ALL: “Do I think this is easy? No! If we say we love Belize (as we heard ad nauseam during the ICJ debate), do we have any choice but to try? NO! Lots of good things are happening and continuing change is inevitable. The challenge for us is how we manage the direction of the changes at this crucial point. We need not only a cadre of leaders with political will but a public steeled for the battle for the future. It starts with NOT littering through voting and holding elected official accountable between elections. I pledge to do my part; will you do the same?”

(About the Author: Belizean Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Political Science) from Georgia State University and a J.D. (LL.B/C.L.E.) from the University of the West Indies/Norman Manley School of Law. In 1992, he was admitted to the Bar in Belize. His primary research areas are Public Law and American and comparative perspectives on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Dr. Young has published in the Journal of International and Global Studies, Journal of Race and Politics and International Social Studies Review. Contact: [email protected])

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