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The system – the people

EditorialThe system – the people

There is a common theory, that is often proven right, as seems to be the case in El Salvador, currently peaceful, but a country once torn by years of civil war, and then ravaged by violence from criminal gangs and drug running cartels. The theory is that people, if given the choice between living under tyranny or anarchy, will usually choose tyranny. Despite the injustices and corruption inevitable in a state run by a dictator, there will usually be a rigid discipline and order that makes life livable, even if hard and sometimes subject to unfair treatment. But when faced with the prospect of daily violence and insecurity of living, when social upheaval and escalating crime leads to a situation of chaos, fear and despair among the people, they will inevitably run out of patience, and long for drastic measures to bring back order and safety in the streets and public places. There have been reports of some injustices and corruption occurring in the massive crackdown, mass incarceration and other draconian measures being taken by the Bukele government in El Salvador, but the president just won a landslide victory at the polls. People want peace and order.

But as the cycle of life turns over, with time, if that peace becomes accompanied by repeated injustices and abuse of citizens’ rights, there will inevitably develop a groundswell of resistance against that very dictatorial situation; because people can only tolerate injustice for so long; and then they start thinking of changing the system in search of justice. The lesson for us in Belize, and even for the supporters of Bukele, who is still riding high on the success of his methods against the gangs, is that a quick fix will appease the people for a time; but if there are not fundamental changes in the system that caused the bad situation to develop, the people will soon be clamoring for a change, and supporting new aspiring leaders in the hope of a long-lasting peace, which can only be realized when fundamental and constructive changes are put in place for justice and opportunity for all the people, since, as our PUP pundits in Belize like to proclaim, “everybody fi win”.

In our little Belize, thank goodness, we are not at that level yet, where reckless violence and intimidation from gangs make life difficult for the general citizenry; but there have been some flare-ups and incidents of violent robberies and home invasions including murder, that suggest that some young men with guns are becoming more and more daring and disdainful of lawful authority in Belize. Security guards and strict visiting rules have been in force at the KHMH for some years now, at great inconvenience to citizens needing to visit their loved ones; and it is because of incidents in which gang members have entered the hospital with intention to “finish” a victim, or to interfere with and intimidate the doctors on duty when they want to see their gang affiliates in the Emergency ward. The “invasion” of the hospital in San Ignacio a few weeks ago was a glaring example of how far the audacity of criminal elements has come in Belize. And that was followed a couple weeks later by the “shooting up” of the house of the Commissioner of Police in Belmopan. We’ve come a long way. And thus, when the dreaded State of Emergency was declared for the Belize and Cayo districts, there was little hue and cry from citizens. Some family members claim their sons have “nothing to do with gangs”, but the general feeling among citizens has been simply that “dehn bwai di get outa hand”. Some of the “good” are suffering for the “bad” in the long lockdowns in prison, but not many citizens are lamenting, only close relatives and friends of those incarcerated under the current State of Emergency.

But, while there will likely be a slowing down of the rate of crime and violence with over a hundred young men “known to police” being behind bars; and citizens may begin to feel more at ease for a while, if the underlying economic and social conditions which spawned these young gang members are not adequately addressed, it will only be a matter of time before we come back to this same place again. And the problem may get bigger the next time around, as our population grows with more Central American immigrants and Belizean deportees from the USA. If we don’t tackle the real problem, we’ll be going around in circles, and spending a lot of money, and seemingly getting nowhere.

Our numbers may look great on paper—fine GDP, and high marks from the IMF, World Bank, IDB, etc; and we may sing the praises of the tourism boom and foreign direct investment (FDI) to grow the economy and increase prosperity. But we must be mindful of the results: are the benefits being felt by those who need it most? Or is this vaunted “development” and “progress” passing by the grandchildren of the peaceful, constructive revolution?

The Gayle report of 2010, when the nation’s population was estimated to be “only 333,200 but with a phenomenal growth rate unparalleled in the Caribbean,” focused its research mainly in the Belize and Cayo districts because those were the leading districts in the crime and gang violence realm which was centered mainly in the towns, which have significant populations of African descent. As observed in its preamble on the national picture, “Of the population measured as poor, the majority (60%) resides in rural areas. This helps to support the common knowledge that poverty does not necessitate violence. In fact, social violence is associated only with urban poverty and hence it is the core concern of this study.”

We find it curious that in 2024, the Belize and Cayo districts are still, again the focus of the problem of crime and gang violence, necessitating a State of Emergency. It is also noteworthy that the most recent labor survey report from the Statistical Institute of Belize, recorded the highest level of unemployment in those same two districts, Cayo (3.7%) and Belize (3.5%). This might seem insignificant, but when you factor in the continued rate of emigration to the U.S. mostly of Belizeans of African descent, and the latest population figure of close to 420,000, which likely reflects an increase in the number of Central American immigrants, resulting in a stark demographic shift in a few short years, it is worth a second look at this situation and to ask some questions about how the country’s development agenda is impacting all sectors of the population.

When our enslaved forebears yearned for a piece of land to grow their own food, having agricultural knowledge and inclination from their African homeland, they were purposely denied access to land, so that their labor was mostly confined to cutting logwood and mahogany. But now that the forest economy has ended, and the descendants of those enslaved laborers are mostly confined to cities and towns, with no knowledge or affinity to agriculture, is anything being done to help reclaim their lost heritage? A lot of projects and training are being sponsored by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to assist immigrant farmers who came here with the taste of land already in their mouths, to this paradise called Belize, and they are taking good advantage of the opportunities offered them. But when some “brothers” ventured to try and rekindle their agricultural heritage at Harmonyville, the “system” did not encourage and assist them; in fact, it threatened them with jail.

Meanwhile, our young men of predominantly African descent in the cities and towns continue on a confused, suicidal journey of seeking “the paper” in the dangerous drug trade, and foolishly demanding respect from a neglectful system by unleashing social violence in all its forms, and suffering the inevitable consequences. Is it our only answer, to “lock them up”?

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