For its relatively small population of 398,000 persons spread across a diverse and vast expanse of land, totaling 8,867 square miles, Belize ought to have shone forth as a country with exemplary governance and economic principles that enable all its citizens to derive optimum benefits from the nation’s assets.
Belize’s land size is more than enough to provide every Belizean family a plot of land for housing and basic food needs. The precious marine environment and immense diversity of Belize’s natural and cultural assets within its sparsely populated territory are internationally recognized gems. If harnessed properly by a populace that is empowered, the wealth that these assets generate should have resulted in far better development conditions in this jewel.
By comparison, Jamaica, with a land area half the size of Belize, maintains a current population of 2,961,167 or 7.5 times more than the population Belize, and a population density of about 698 persons per square mile. Trinidad and Tobago, with its population of 1,399,488, is packed into a land area of 1981 square miles (an area about 4.5 times smaller than Belize), which equates to 706 persons per square mile.
The current population of Barbados, 287,375 persons, is contained within its land area of 166.4 square miles, an area that is about 53 times smaller than Belize. This means that for every square mile, there is an average of 1,727 Barbadian residents.
In comparison, Belize’s relatively sparse population spreads an average of 45 persons per square mile —far less than Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados.
Yet, with all the “wealth untold” that ought to have blessed our small population, Belize continues to suffer from high levels of poverty and unemployment, a high debt burden, the devastating impacts of persistent corruption through various government administrations which an already impoverished population must pay for, Sisyphean obstacles that prevent citizens from owning a plot of land, nepotism, highly disproportionate voter representation in the legislature, and an education system that has not only produced little for the vast investments made, but also persistently has bred conformity while stifling the vast majority from harnessing their leadership, creative and productive potential.
Even when small gains are made, overall socioeconomic conditions seem to worsen, especially among the Afro and indigenous populations of the inner Belize City and southern Belize. The sense of hopelessness and disappointment, the lack of zeal among the masses, especially the youths, and the lukewarm approaches for much needed reforms all continue to indicate a gloomy future. Not to mention the additional complications caused by COVID-19. What has gone wrong?
From a historical context, Belize’s colonially rooted system was designed merely to ensure a certain class dominance and exercise power over (rather than empower) the natives and those considered “lower” social classes. Rooted in colonialism, the class of leaders that emerged saw themselves as superior and often perpetuated the same condescending behavior of colonial masters.
Under this system, state power was meant to be imposed downward, no matter the local conditions, while the involvement of the masses has usually been limited to mainly casting votes at elections. Effective checks and balances in the power and leadership of government remain virtually non-existent. Public enterprises have become the handmaids of narrow private interests while significant portions of the population are excluded from active participation and ownership in the market mechanism. Under this leadership structure, many who would not even be remotely eligible or qualified to be hired to run an organization or company are granted power to make key decisions that impact the entire country.
Evidently, even as the nation sees glaring loopholes, there seems to be no genuine commitment by successive PUP and UDP administrations to radically improve the current system or produce a new one. There seems much comfort in maintaining a system which recycles and benefits certain elites while merely dressing the substance of the old with new garbs.
In several constituencies there exists a crisis of leadership: drained-out, dysfunctional, recycled leadership holding on to shadows of their own ineffective past, with no vision for effective service to those whom they claim to represent. If the blind lead the blind, won’t they both fall into a ditch?
Consequently, both parties have failed to effectively address the high levels of individual greed and corruption within their core. Rather, since Independence they have silently waited out each cycle of elections and unscrupulously used unsuspecting masses to validate their existence. The failure of party members to hold their own party representatives and structures accountable and to higher standards also nurtures the root cause of Belize’s downward spiral of moral and socioeconomic decline. Genuine agents of change are often ostracized.
This paradigm has become so locked that it has become widely accepted that only the two-party system can resolve this. The unions do not seem to recognize their collective national power (that third parties do not have) to demand deep reforms, or democratically elect their own independent candidates (of the most highly qualified from each constituency), to form a new government with a fresh vision and mandate.
That, however, depends on the unions’ strong commitment to shifting the current paradigm. Too often their ground-swell collective lobbying efforts have been focused merely on pursuing salary and benefits, and once these are achieved, they scatter back into belly-full membership apathy. No other persistent collective efforts at deep reforms seem to be addressed by unions with as much zeal as is shown when they are pushing for their salaries and benefits, nor are such reform efforts addressed by business with the zeal that these enterprises show when they are resisting minimum wage reforms to protect profits.
The lack of a collective national people’s vision and plan for all parties to utilize (Horizon 2030 has long been shelved), the dire need for governance and political reform (including redistricting of constituencies for fair representation) the need to ensure systems for accountable use of public finances and resources, among other pressing national issues, all plead for similar zeal in collective efforts by unions, the private sector, and civil society. Or else both major parties seem to protect each other against pursuing deep systemic reforms, even after the sworn pledges they make upon entering office.
Divisive forces within the national consciousness of such a small country – whether through political, religious, racial, ethnic, class or gender affiliations— have also prevented Belizeans from effectively addressing solutions to the challenges that we all face. People are often so fanatically locked into their alignment, e.g. PUP vs UDP, one religious denomination vs another, colonially-rooted discrimination that marginalizes ethnicities, etc., even when such divisive approaches have proven counterproductive to the greater well-being of society. Divisiveness weakens or nullifies even the best-intentioned efforts for the common good.
Rather than engender united efforts to build and consolidate positive changes, the mindset of divisiveness can lock itself into anger, defensiveness, clouded thought and judgment, slanderous and judgmental speech, exclusivity and stubborn destructiveness. People who are locked into a divisive mindset can hardly discuss matters intelligently, with respect for one another, or nurture collaborative efforts towards a common good. Exploiters thrive on divisiveness – utilizing a divided people (and even further dividing them) for their own selfish gains.
There is the urgent need to heal the divisive atmosphere and the primitive politics, and work assiduously toward the greater good of our nation. Indeed, intelligent people from all parties – UDP, PUP, BPP, PNP, whatever P and No P – who have the good of the nation (rather than narrow party interests) at heart, can find common ground and work together on various issues for the national good. Even within one party or another, differences can be resolved towards ensuring the greater national good, rather than reckless attempts to preserve ineffective leadership and narrow oligarchic interests. At all levels, the changes needed are deeply systemic, rather than cosmetic.
The corruption, crime and violence, divisiveness, anger, crisis of leadership and apathy that Belize increasingly faces are only the tip of the iceberg and indicative of a much deeper crisis: – the increasing moral decay in the individual and social fabric that once held our society together.
Political parties are not necessarily inherently corrupt. It is greedy individuals with corrupt personal values and behavior who corrupt parties from within. Even with good intentions, the values that credible and admired leaders such as George Price or Philip Goldson tried to promote within their parties were often compromised by corrupt individuals within their parties. Individuals who corrupt parties or organizations are those with desires to fulfill their insatiable greed for material and sensual possessions. Greed leads to fraud, deceit and theft. Chasing sensual pleasures can lead a person to lose focus on the greater good. Spotting corruption or potential for corruption, therefore, means recognizing and removing greedy, fraudulent and deceitful individuals who often lurk in the shadows hoping for, or preying on, their party’s success. They are not for the people, but for their own selfish interests. By their utterances and behavior they are known.
Indeed, quality leadership throughout all organizations and institutions is the key for effective change. The worst aspects of leadership are naked ignorance, blinding greed and exploitation of people. Leaders who do not grow to master the insatiable desire for material or sensual appetites, and who become engrossed in negative emotions are already compromised to the detriment of those whom they are supposed to serve. The spiritual ability to keep one’s appetite for sensual and material pleasures in balance and not have these overcome one’s intellect and wisdom, is a mark of all great leaders, including 13th century mystic, Rumi, who said, “Once you conquer your selfish self, all your darkness will turn to light.” One has to be deeply conscious of one’s inclinations in order to conquer them. That takes consistent meditation, reflection and prayer.
The back-and-forth finger pointing about one incidence of corruption to another, from one political party to another, without addressing its roots will not solve our national development issues. We cannot continue to blame one party or the other without holding each party and individual representatives of the people more accountable, including being able to recognize various emperors who have no clothes.
As noted by Thich Nhat Hanh, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons that it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” Likewise, with the persistent problems we are seeing in our political system and social fabric, we tend to uselessly engage in a cycle of blame against each other. Rather than looking at the root causes and correcting these so as to prevent repetition of same, the parties often argue about who has outdone the other in wrongdoing.
Blaming and speculative arguments have no positive effect. On the contrary, it only encourages denial and a failure to make profound amends. Rather than the useless cycle of blame, we should all try to gain deeper understanding, utilize our collective intelligence and right intentions, and with a clear and equanimous mind, work hard in united efforts to spot and eliminate the root of the problems that retard transformation of this nation. The people deserve no less.
By addressing the root causes of destructive forces, Belize’s current and future generations will be able to realize more widespread benefits from the country’s immense natural and cultural assets. There is much healing to do and deep reforms yet to pursue. It can be done. The power is with the people. Manos a la obra!