If it were not for the wondrous natural gifts God the Father bestowed on Belize, many Belizeans would wake up wondering what good could come from the day, because our country has not been kind to them for so long. This tragedy — that most of our people are barely scraping along— should concern every person who holds or has held a leadership position in this country, and every person who has gotten a hefty bite out of the resources of our country.
The United Nations, in an expansive definition of poverty in 2018, said that it “entails more than the lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion, as well as the lack of participation in decision-making.”
In regards to poverty as it relates to hunger and malnutrition, prior to Covid-19 too many of our citizens were living in a deprived state, and since the epidemic thousands more not only don’t know where their next meals are coming from, but their bellies are presently empty.
Christiana Lano, in the paper, “Economic Context for Poverty in Belize”, which was prepared for “The Borgen Project” in 2017, said that “of the nearly 360,000 individuals in Belize, 43 percent live below the national poverty line…16 percent face extreme poverty”, and that to remedy this terrible state of affairs our country has to “accelerate national income growth and ameliorate the growing wealth disparity.”
The Borgen Project, an organization in the United States of America (USA) which preaches that “leaders of the most powerful nation on earth (USA) should be doing more to address global poverty”, is not alone in pointing out that the huge gap in income in our country is a very serious matter that is eating at the fabric of our nation.
Drawing from information in the CIA World Factbook, the website internationalliving.com said that Belize has the third highest per capita income in Central America, but “the average income figure masks a huge income disparity between rich and poor.”
Of recent, especially in the last two decades, we have seen violence, foul murder, become the number one scourge in our country. Some point to poverty as the main cause of the violence in the country, but that is belied by the fact that prior to independence we had poverty, yet we were a peaceful country, so peaceful that one of our most celebrated poets, Samuel Haynes, immortalized us as a “tranquil haven.”
What happened to Belize? One of the biggest differences between present-day Belize and yesteryear Belize has to do with the distribution of wealth. Prior to self-government and independence we were, exclusive of the colonizers who lived apart from us, poor, but after our local politicians gained control of the assets of the country, a greedy class sprang up. Aided by corruption, insider trading, and political patronage, this class has been increasing by leaps and bounds.
It is important that people from abroad recognize the tremendous wealth disparity in our country, and remark on it, because shame is a powerful tool. Forty years after independence, our leaders can’t be proud. They have created a country with unequal wealth distribution, a country where only few are winning.
Living in a country with such poor distribution of wealth is difficult if you aren’t one of the elite. The anxiety of parents, both young and old, must be enormous when they see themselves and their offspring so disadvantaged, and others and their children so privileged.
The wealth disparity in our midst spawns anger and hopelessness; it is at the root of our fall from a tranquil haven to one of the most murderous states in the world. Many of us do our best to ignore it, we try to pretend it away, but the fact is that being poor in a rich country gnaws at the heart of every deprived person, and our harvest is the violence we see in our society.
Last week was one of the worst we’ve ever seen. What is it… seven murders in our country in less than a week? Seven murders in a population as small as ours should make us a feature on headline news all around the world, for the worst reason. So many countries in the world are true tranquil havens, but little Belize with only 400,000 people, we have recorded upwards of 140 homicides in a single year more than once.
But massive wealth disparity is not our only failure. A great fault lies with our justice system, which works poorly in cases of murder (and corruption in public life). Pre-independence we had a justice system that worked, albeit not perfectly. Post-independence we are a disaster.
When the weight of foul murder gets too much, as it did last weekend, Belizeans scream out for the death penalty, but that is reaching at a straw, because not only has that penalty not been meted out in Belize since 1985, but a conviction for this crime is rare in our courts.
The justice system is porous – less than ten percent of murder cases are solved. Our police know that when they go to court the person they identified as the guilty party, will be acquitted, and this has caused their morale to sink so low that they have taken to keeping murder suspects on remand for lengthy periods. The lawyers condemn this practice, loudly, and they criticize our woeful conviction rate, not so vociferously.
Despite so much despair in our country, our people still clutch to the belief that this dark period will give way to a new dawn, an era when Belizeans who have been getting a raw deal on the economic side will see better times, a new era when justice will prevail throughout the land. Our new government has promised that by the end of their five-year term every one of us will win. For that to happen it will not only have to create jobs, but it will also have to create a new Belize, a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is greatly reduced, and the people believe that those who commit murder (and corrupt acts in public life) will be dealt with by the courts.