For its relatively small population size of 335,000 spread across a diverse and vast expanse of land, totaling 8,867 square miles, Belize ought to have shone forth as 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, packs a population 10 times more than Belize. Barbados, which has a land size that is more than fifty (50) times smaller than Belize, packs about 85% of Belize’s population within that tiny space. In fact, Belize’s entire population is the size of small cities in many countries. For example, the Mexican city of Cancun with its population of about 630,000 almost doubles that of Belize. Cancun’s population which grew from 120 persons in the early 1970s, is packed in a land area of 103 sq. miles – 86 times smaller than Belize or about one-tenth the size of Stann Creek (986 sq. miles), Belize’s smallest district. Merida, another Mexican City, has 970,000 residents – three times the population of Belize – in a land area of 331 square miles, which is 27 times smaller than Belize and one-third of the Stann Creek District. These cities, which reflect relative stability and prosperity, are run by their Mayors and their City Councils. Not perfect, of course. For the small space they occupy and the planning that went into their development, these cities have shown impressive achievements.
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, high debt burden, devastating impacts of persistent corruption through various government administrations, sisyphean obstacles of citizens to own a plot of land, and an education system that has not only produced little for the vast investments made, but also persistently 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 with the status quo. The sense of hopelessness and disappointment, the lack of zeal among the masses especially the youths, the lukewarm approaches for much needed reforms all indicate a gloomy future. What has gone wrong?
From a historical context, Belize’s colonially rooted system was designed merely to fulfill 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 perpetuate 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. Checks and balances in the power and leadership of government remain virtually non-existent. Public enterprises have become the handmaid of narrow private interests while a significant portion of the population are excluded from active participation in the market mechanism. Mismanagement of the economy remains mostly unchecked and unaccounted. In the leadership structure many who would not even be remotely eligible to be hired to run an organization or company, are granted much power to make key decisions for the entire country.
Evidently, even as the nation sees glaring loopholes, there seem no genuine commitment by successive PUP and UDP administrations to radically improve the current system or produce a new one. There seems much comfort to maintain a system which recycles and benefits certain elites while merely dressing the substance of the old with new garbs. Consequently, both parties have failed to effectively address high levels of individual greed and corruption within their core. Rather, they silently wait out each cycle of elections and unscrupulously use unsuspecting masses to validate their existence. The failure of party members to hold their own party leaders 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 deliberately ostracized.
The 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 democratically elect their own independent candidates, (of most qualified leaders from each constituency nationwide) to form a new government with fresh visions and mandates. This, however, depends on their strong commitment to shift the paradigm.
Divisive forces within the human and national consciousness – whether through political, religious, racial, ethnic, class or gender affiliations have also retarded Belizeans from effectively addressing solutions to the challenges that we face. People are often so fanatically locked into their alignment – PUP vs UDP, women vs men (to the vast exclusion of each other), and one religious denomination vs another, 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, and stubborn destructiveness. People who are locked into a divisive mindset can hardly discuss matters intelligently, with respect for each other and nurture collaborative efforts towards a common good. Exploiters thrive on divisiveness. There is the urgent need to heal the increasing divisive atmosphere and work assiduously toward the greater good of our nation.
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 decay in the social, moral fabric that once held our society together. Political parties are not necessarily inherently corrupt. It is individuals who corrupt parties from within. Even with good intentions the values that credible and admired leaders such as George Price or Phillip Goldson tried to promote within their parties were often compromised by corrupt individuals within. Individuals who corrupt parties or organizations are those with inner desires to fulfill his or her insatiable greed for material and sensual possessions. Greed leads to fraudulence, deceitfulness and stealing. 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 themselves.
The worst aspects of leadership are naked ignorance, blinded 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 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 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.”
The back and forth finger pointing about one incidence of corruption to another, from one political party to another, without looking at its roots will not solve our national crisis. We cannot continue to blame one party or the other without holding each party and individual leader more accountable. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hahn, 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, often to see which has outdone the other for wrongdoing. Blaming and arguing 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 utilizing our collective intelligence, good intentions and with a clear and equanimous mind, work hard in united efforts to spot and eliminate the root of the problem and transform this nation. The people deserve no less.
By addressing the root causes of destructive forces that retards national development, 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. The power is with the people. Manos a la obra!
by Jerry A. Enriquez