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The Complexity of Race and Ethnicity in Belize and the Relevance of Reparations

Science proves that biologically and genetically all humans are the same. Race and ethnicity, therefore, are political and social constructs. Usually we subsume people into a racial group on the basis of their physical appearance and their original geographical location, so the Chinese and generally most Asians who have relatively yellow skin tones would be regarded as Mongolian, Europeans who are more light-skinned would be Caucasian or white, and Africans who are relatively much darker, despite their various colour gradations, would be perceived as Black.

It is a historical fact that for centuries European prejudices were based on class and religion, and not on race. Indeed, Africans were not new to Europe, because from 711 AD until 1492, much of Spain had been conquered by the Moors, who were Africans. The Spaniards, who were the first Europeans to colonise the Americas, therefore took with them to the Americas an underlying colour prejudice borne from their centuries-old experience of Moorish domination. Racism was clearly incubated from the sole desire to colonise and dominate, and used as a convenient crutch to secure and maintain the levers of power which exist to this very day.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, in that it is socially determined by our culture, community and familial connections, language, and place of origin. It may include nationality; but while one may be Nigerian by nationality, he or she is a member of one of the 371 different ethnic groups who live in Nigeria. And, even within one ethnic group such as the Yoruba, the Igbo, or the Ijon, there are further divisions determined by slightly different  customs, dialects, dress, musical instruments and even food.

Belize is a little larger than the State of Israel, or two and a half times the size of Jamaica, but has a population which is just around 400,000. Within that population, there are four main racial groups and several different ethnicities. For example, there is a small, white settler group made up of the Mennonites (3.6%), who are a religious sect who speak old German and emigrated to Belize in the late 1950s. They have their own autonomous community, replete with schools, churches, clinics and even banks, and generally do not mix with other Belizeans. More recent arrivals to Belize are Europeans and North Americans who control and dominate the tourist industry and Belize’s unique resorts.

Added to them is a similarly recent white expatriate, retiree community from North America. Much of Belize’s huge expanse of land and scenic islands or cayes are almost gone — the largest island, San Pedro or Ambergis Caye, being about the size of Barbados. Belize’s choice real estate areas are now owned by these latest immigrés to Belize, while “born Belizeans” scrabble around for a bit of land. Many of these exclusive areas have been transformed into gated communities and city states, which few “born Belizeans” can enter.

Next on this racial pole are the Chinese (ranging between 1% and 2%) of the population. Earlier Chinese migrants represented labour diasporas from Hong Kong, in search of work in Belize, but more recent migrations in the last three or so decades are from Mainland China and Taiwan and are economic migrants. They also have their own autonomous gated community on huge tracts of Belize’s land. But because most of their shops and other business enterprises are located mainly within the largely African-Belizean or Creole community, based in Belize City, the commercial capital, there are tensions between these two races.

Another racial entity is the East Indians (3.6% of the population), a small group who first came to Belize as indentured labourers, but were joined later in the last four decades by Ugandan Indians. Other arrivals since the 1940s are Arabs, who are mainly Palestinian and Lebanese. Added to this group are nationals of Turkey.

The Mestizo population in Belize, now the largest (52.9%), is generally made up of arrivals from the neighbouring Spanish-speaking republics such as El Salvador and Nicaragua. They entered Belize in the 1980s as economic migrants fleeing from the upheavals that were prevalent then in Central America. Added to this mix are Mestizos coming from Guatemala, a predator nation which claims Belize, thus preventing it from getting political independence until 1981. The Guatemalan Mestizo are often illegal immigrants, encouraged by the Guatemalan government to cross the border, pillage Belize’s rich forests and nature reserves, settle in Belize, and thereafter obtain Belizean nationality.

But before the arrival of these later Mestizos, Belize had an earlier Mestizo community that was part of an exodus, along with the Yucateco Maya, who fled from Mexico to Belize in the 19th century from the Mexican Caste Wars. There were also other arrivals of the Mopan and Q’eqchi Maya from Guatemala, who emigrated to Belize roughly around that time, because their land had been confiscated by the white European settler class in Guatemala. The Maya who are indigenous to Central America and Southern Mexico constitute 6.1% of Belize’s population.

Added to this mix are the Garifuna, (formerly known as Black Caribs), who arrived in Belize in 1802, first from St. Vincent, and thereafter Honduras. The Garifuna of Belize (4%) are the only Africans who came to the Americas as slave cargo, but whose ship was wrecked off St. Vincent in 1650, and who, because of this, escaped slavery. While some of them intermarried with the Carib Indians they met in St. Vincent, Garifuna DNA tests prove that they are predominantly African and largely of Igbo ethnicity. They constitute 5 percent of Belize’s population.

The last ethnic group — the African-Belizeans, who are known as Creoles, used to be 60 percent of Belize’s population, but are now reduced to 25.9%. They are the descendants of second and third generation slaves brought to Belize mainly from Jamaica to work in the forests of Belize since its economy was based during slavery and colonisation on forestry. Belize has more than 700 different types of wood in its forests; and logwood formerly used for making dyes was the main economic reason for the British settling in Belize.

The Creoles, a mixture of African and European ancestries, with at times some Mestizo admixture, used to be the most Western-educated people in Belize, and customarily manned the professions, as well as the civil service and security apparatus. But in the last 50 years, more than half of Belize’s population has been transformed into a cultural diaspora or chain migration community in the US, and more recently in Canada. The majority of Belize’s diaspora community are the Creole and Garifuna people.

How relevant, then, is the concept and the implementation of reparations within this complex racial and ethnic mix; and more specifically for the dispossessed ethnicities in Belize, who were the earliest people to serve British colonial and imperialist interests? Although there was the presence in Belize of adherents of Marcus Garvey, the great Jamaican philosopher and Black African advocate of the early 20th century, in the form of the UNIA and the Black Cross nurses, it was not until the late 1960s that African-Belizeans became truly sensitised to their history and condition through a revolutionary Black African cultural and political movement named UBAD.

UBAD was led by Evan X Hyde, a brilliant Dartmouth University graduate, who instead of remaining in the US to further an academic or Wall St. career, preferred to return to Belize to serve the cause of Black African emancipation. Evan X  insisted that not only the history of slavery and racism must be taught to all Belizeans, but also that of the neglected and discriminated indigenous Indians of Central America — the Maya people. Hyde also challenged the political status quo and sought to change the narrative about Black aversion to farming by attempting to create agricultural cooperatives. He and other organisations which followed in his wake such as BREDAA and BGYEA were neither encouraged nor supported in these agricultural initiatives by Belize’s power elite.

Today in Belize, despite these enlightened interventions, there is a large ignorance and even incomprehension and hostility towards the reparations movement. Sadly, this is by those who, although they are perhaps unaware, have suffered the most from the systemic economic, cultural and psychological effects of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. In fact, these victims are unable to perceive that the current situation in Belize, of growth without development, stems intrinsically from the historical injustice of slavery and colonialism which are formalised and internalised within Belize’s institutions and power structures. One of the most malignant psychological residues of systemic racism and repression in Belize, is self-hatred among its victims —  which creates the need to deny and forget.

Reparations in Belize is not only about justice, but the need to repair a broken system. Slavery and the economics of exploiting Africans and the indigenous Indians of the Americas by nations and institutions which have prospered, and are still prospering from activities perpetrated long ago, and even today, in the name of the law and not of justice, requires not just an apology, but actions to amend.

With the exception of the white, Chinese, Indian and Arab settler communities in Belize, every other ethnic group consists of victims of discrimination and general marginalisation. Granted, the capture and enslavement of Africans for 400 years as a prized economic commodity has no parallel in world history. The Creole community of Belize gained nothing for the loss of their identities, names, languages, belief systems, kinship relations, foods, culture and even the sovereignty of their bodies. Psychologically, they are still so damaged that a number of their lighter-skinned members, with “good” hair, who can “pass” for Mestizo, crossed over in recent successive censuses to identify as Mestizo, and not Creole. Some, also, who are often referred to in Belize as “royal Creoles” and regard themselves as heirs to the British, believe that British colonialism and its handmaiden, American imperialism, represented tempering factors in making them Westernised and “civilised”.

With this latent racism and self-hate inherent within Belizean society, it was not surprising that there was no desire among some of Belize’s influential political leaders, to join in 1958 the now defunct West Indian Federation. Actually, they were afraid of the largely Black African and Protestant Caribbean people swamping an underpopulated and largely Catholic Belize. More recently, Haitian immigration to Belize has been met not only with disfavour, but even prejudice and hostility.

Will reparations negotiated on a regional platform create a new transformative reality, which visionary leaders in our political milieu will use along with a conscious citizenry, to dismantle the present broken economic, political, juridical and social constructs in nations like Belize? We must use the opportunity of the reparations struggle to obliterate the perpetration of economic oppression, the normalisation of brutality, political opportunism and misrule on our most vulnerable citizens. Without doubt, the origins of all these vices are situated in our history.

In Belize, and I suppose throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas and Europe, there is this persistent ghettoisation of African-Belizeans, African-Caribbean people, African-Americans  and African-Latinos, even when some of our political, intellectual and institutional leaders have emerged from these groups. Our proximity to the US has now inculcated within our youths the culture of drugs, guns, gangs, and mindless violence. But the constancy of their humiliation and hopeless state, instead of producing the organised, progressive rebellion of the Evan X generation to change the status quo, paradoxically creates a fatigue, an acceptance of the current state — a type of slavery.

There is much work to do within Belize. The European nations, the US, their corporate entities and institutions, and their domestic collaborators must accept the need to redress age-old and current injustices. They ought to understand that they must be responsive in formulating a new and progressive vision of all our futures. But, there is no way there will ever be a positive redistribution of economic, educational, social and political dividends from those who possess them to those who do not, unless perceptions radically change. This is because reparations essentially have to do with power and privilege, and no one readily gives these up to be shared.

The nations of Africa, because of their collaboration with Europe and America in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, must be represented at the reparations table. There is a vast silence and at times an incomprehensive ignorance about Africa’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade within Continental Africa. And Africa must be held to account. Even among the continent’s famed griots, there is a resounding silence, as if those who were taken away had never lived, and were never a part of Africa.

It is a fact that Africa gained nothing from its interaction with Europe and America. Many of the wars waged on the continent were deliberately initiated by the Europeans for the sole purpose of obtaining supplies of slaves. Evidence abounds that the slave trade damaged Africa to the point that it left the continent demographically unbalanced, and the coastal empires, kingdoms, confederacies and city states were considerably weakened and subsequently vulnerable to Africa’s eventual division and colonisation by various European powers. One  of these was small, insignificant Belgium, which ended up owning the richly endowed Congo, which is the size of Western Europe.

Africa, a continent of 56 sovereign states, 54 of which are UN members, can make amends to its exiled children, by extending the hand of fellowship to bridge the centuries-old history of perfidy, unease, ignorance, miseducation and pernicious indoctrination about each other, perpetrated by Europe and America. For those who wish to return to the land of their ancestors, they must  be offered any African nationality of their choice. That is the least we require. After all, there is a large pool of educated and highly trained Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora who urgently need to unite to create and sustain an African Renaissance that would engender respect throughout the world for all Black and African peoples, wherever they may be. Respect is always earned and never, ever freely given.

(Presented at a virtual conference: “Reparations for Africans (Diaspora and Continental) and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas — A Grass Roots Perspective”) (Bogota, Colombia) 12th July, 2020

(Thérèse Belisle-Nweke, a Belizean, lives in Lagos, Nigeria.)

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