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Young sailors stand on the shoulder of a Master and Commander: Charles Bartlett Hyde

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Whose country, Belize?

EditorialWhose country, Belize?

Monday, December 5, 2022

Two buzzwords that remained prominent throughout the years of agitation and reaching out to the international community for their support in our struggle to achieve independence, were “territorial integrity;” and another combined word just as integral to the effort, “self-determination.” In fact, the latter was a pivotal factor in our leaders’ case before the United Nations to recognize us as a new people, the Belizean people, with our own identity, anthem and all the attributes of a nation, with the right to determine our own future, as opposed to being subject to the whims of the colonial power in settling their age-old dispute with Guatemala. But in these modern days, sometimes one has to wonder if we are being taken seriously as a nation, or if powerful hidden hands are dictating to us behind the scenes.

“Self-determination of peoples” was a major plank in the new United Nations program of decolonisation following the end of World War II in 1945. As a number of English-speaking Caribbean countries progressed to their independence in the early and mid-1960s, Belize languished behind due to the Guatemalan claim that the United Kingdom, our then colonial masters, wished to settle with Guatemala at our expense. With much lobbying efforts from then leaders, premier George Price, deputy premier “Lindy” Rogers and minister Assad Shoman and others, as well as Opposition stalwarts in conjunction with the U.S.-based Belize Freedom Committee, that saw the likes of Philip Goldson and Comptom Fairweather lobbying against Guatemala’s efforts at the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. overwhelmingly supported the Belizean people’s right to “self-determination” and “territorial integrity”; thus Belize became an independent nation in September 1981 with “full territorial integrity” – all 8,867 square miles, and with full respect for our new nation’s right to “self-determination.”

Of course, along the way in the mid-1960s there were the Webster’s Proposals that the United States tried to pressure our leaders to agree to; but Belizean citizens, around 100,000 of us at that time, rejected them vigorously with massive street demonstrations. It was in the interest of the U.S., who had a long-standing cozy relationship with the Guatemalan military oligarchs, to fulfill their promises to Guatemala at the expense of some Belizean territory or rights over some of our affairs, conditions to which Belizeans were adamantly opposed. And then the British, in trying to appease their American friends, again attempted to push through a deal packaged in what was called “The Heads of Agreement,” that was again violently rejected by the Belizean people months before our actual independence day on September 21, 1981.

At independence in 1981, those steadfast and determined Belizean people, who neither the coaxing of the slick Americans nor the diplomatic savvy of the experienced British could soften and cajole, only numbered less than 150,000, with the bulk of the population still based in the historic Belize City, site of the first settlement in the early 1600s by buccaneers/pirates of British and other nationalities at the mouth of what is now the Haulover Creek of the Belize River. That’s a relatively small population, predominantly descendants of slaves, to be so boisterous in defending their “inalienable right to self-determination.” In fact, at the start of the independence movement in 1950, when the British Governor’s devaluation of the Belize dollar sparked the formation of the People’s Committee, which later became the People’s United Party, the “party of independence”, the population was even smaller. According to www.macrotrends.net, the official population figures for Belize over the ensuing decades were (our figures rounded to nearest thousand): 1950 – 69,000; 1960 – 91,000; 1970 – 121,000; 1980 – 145,000; 1990 – 183,000; 2000 – 240,000; 2010 – 322,000; and 2020 — 395,000.

The earliest recorded Belize census we could locate, from sib.org.bz, was done in 1790, and it featured a total population of 2,493. Of these, 230 were classified as “white”; 1,923 as “slaves”, which would be predominantly African (black) or of mixed African origin; and 340 as “free persons,” which could also include some persons of African or mixed African origin. If we would classify say 100 of those “free persons” as being of mixed African origin, it would mean that what we now describe as the “Creole” or “Kriol” persons would have comprised around 80% of the settlement’s population.

The next census in 1816 showed 3,824 total; but it was more definitive in describing the ethnicity of persons counted. There were 149 “white persons”; 562 “coloured persons”; 371 “black free persons”; and 2,742 “slaves”, who we have to presume were black/African. The “Creole/Kriol” population then would be about 3,675, or practically 96% of the population.

Censuses listed by the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB) for 1820 onwards for many decades did not differentiate by color or ethnicity, just females and males. (It is likely that isolated Mayan villages in the far west and south were not included in those early censuses.)

With the “Caste War” in Mexico in the mid to latter nineteenth century, Belize’s population was significantly impacted by new Mestizo and Maya immigrants; and the civil wars that raged in Central America in the latter 1970s and 1980s led to many more refugees seeking safety and a new life in Belize. Another factor resulting in a major shift in the population demographics, was the large number of citizens, especially Creoles/Kriols from Belize City, which was devastated by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, who were given free passage to the U.S. as a humanitarian gesture. The “exodus” continued for decades after.

Kriols/Creoles remained the majority ethnic group until probably sometime in the mid-1980s.

A 1970 census did not mention ethnicity; but in 1980, Creoles/Kriols were still the majority group comprising 40.0% of the population, while Mestizos accounted for 33.4.%. But by a 1991 census, those numbers had flipped, as the continued exodus north of Creole/Kriol Belizeans and the movement into Belize of Mestizo immigrants from Central America continued. In 1991, Creoles/Kriols were 29.8% of the population, Mestizos were 43.6%, Garifuna were 6.6%, and Maya were 11.0%. And by 2010 the disparity was even wider between Creoles/Kriols and Mestizos, while the other ethnic groups remained relatively constant. The 2010 census showed Creoles/Kriols at 25.9% of the population, Mestizos at 52.9%, Garifuna at 6.1%, and Maya at 11.3%.

What has been amazing, and a blessing of sorts, is that this young nation of Belize has not, and does not appear to be on the brink of any semblance of tribal or ethnic war. Of course, there is some prejudice, but this unique people in the “heart of the Caribbean basin” have somehow found a way to coexist and share enough of themselves with each other, so that human bonds restrain any tendency to large-scale ethnic barriers. Belize “Kriol/Creole” is still the common language spoken in many different variations across the Jewel. And the “founding fathers’” experiment of “one nation, one people, the Belizean people” continues.

In this mix of circumstances and trials, even as the young Creole/Kriol male population seems on a suicidal path of drug-related rivalries, crime and violence, there is still hope that the national will to eradicate extreme poverty will see a return to “peace and love” among our young people.

There are some sincere politicians with the will to see things change for the betterment of our young people, who make up over 70% of the population; but in their quest for a brighter tomorrow, our leaders would be wise to consider seriously the long-term implications of their decisions. “Not all that glitters is gold,” and they need to guard against the temptations advanced by the agents of corporate greed, whose selfish, profit-driven ego seldom places any value on the well-being of the small man/woman in society. Bigger is not necessarily better for little Belize.

Are the demographic convulsions experienced by the Belizean people too disrupting to see an upwelling of national resistance and rebellion against any perceived threat against our children’s future or our right to “self-determination”? While our elected leaders ponder the exciting touristic possibilities, and our learned technocrats caution against the potentially disastrous impact of certain large ventures on our fragile ecosystem, will Belizeans sit back and allow one big, international corporate giant to simply dictate to all of us what they WILL DO inside our Jewel? “We’ve come a long way,” Belize.

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To – David

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