New Internationalist

Belize

Issue 144

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COUNTRY PROFILE

Belize

Map of Belize

Leader: Manuel Esquivel

Economy: GNP per capita around $1,000 (1982 estimate)

Main exports: Sugar, tropical produce, citrus fruits

People: 172,000

Health: Child mortality - 38.5 per 1,000 live births (1975)

Culture: About 50% are creole (mixed race Afro-Caribbean), 25% are Hispano-Indian or are Indian of Maya ancestry, 10% are black Caribs with their own language and there are minorities of Arabs. Lebanese, Chinese, German speaking Mennonites. Most speak creole English. with Spanish as the second language. Racial and cultural balance changing with influx of Central American refugees.

Source: World View 1984.

 

 

Once called ‘Little England in Central America’, Belize has taken on new importance with the heightened tensions in Central America. No less than the hemispheric heavyweight, the United States, is said to be ready to step in to help develop the recently independent nation (1981), should Britain finally pull out.

The price for such a move could be the installation of US military bases to help monitor and contain Central America’s swirling sea of social unrest. So far the Belizeans have refused to commit themselves and Britain remains the guarantor of Belize’s sovereign integrity against the predatory military regime in neighbouring Guatemala.

Britain would gladly seize the chance to vacate its costly garrison of 1,800 troops backed by sophisticated weaponry. But Belize’s pride in its British heritage means Whitehall has to keep forking out until the long-running territorial dispute with the sabre-rattling Guatemalans is settled.

Meanwhile, Belize stagnates. It has been a victim of long-term neglect, underpopulation and steady economic decline since its heyday as a purveyor of mahogany to Victorian England.

The former capital, Belize City, could have been taken from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Surrounded by mangrove swamps, its roofs of galvanized

iron sit rustily atop a combination of shabby wooden houses and factories supported by wooden stilts to avoid frequent flooding or, in the more genteel areas. English-style cottages, their gardens neatly tended.

The weight of the past rests heavily upon the Belizeans. First settled in the seventeenth century by Englishmen and their black slaves from Jamaica who came to exploit the abundant reserves of logwood for textile dyes, British Honduras, as it was originally known, placed excessive reliance on forestry - to its cost.

Belizeans have been loath to develop the considerable agricultural potential with the result that over 85 per cent of cultivable land remains virgin territory.

Ironically those who do work in agriculture produce sugar and tropical produce for a depressed world market whilst large quantities of food are imported.

Tourism is a potential money-spinner. Once a major centre for the now defunct Maya civilization, Belize~s jungle terrain boasts sites of archaeological interest.

The United Democratic Party led by Manuel Esquivel won a dramatic election victory late in 1984 . The previous government’s efforts to move Belize closer to the United States and its position on Central American affairs seems to have been one of the causes of this. Indeed tensions from the Central American imbroglio have been spilling over into Belize with an influx of refugees threatening the delicate racial balance between Afro-Caribbeans and Hispano-Indians

In spite of this, Belize will probably continue on its somnolent path - Saturday nights at the cinema, the heat and stench of the streets, the cheering glimpse of a humming-bird sipping at the hibiscus flower. The ‘sleepy Caribbean backwater looks all set to go on dreaming.

Mike Rose


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No great disparity
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Lack of foreign investment
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‘Most top posts held by men
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[image, unknown] Centre government in democratic system
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90% of adults over 15 can read and write
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Few restraints
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Low infant mortality

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