A taste of the Caribbean in Central America

Patrick Jones

The prospects for the future are bright, despite occasional economic setbacks, the challenge of drug-related crime and an ongoing territorial dispute with Guatemala

The current administration of Dean Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP) swept to power in 2008 on an anti-corruption platform that many saw as a popular uprising against the People’s United Party government, led by former Prime Minister Said Musa. And, according to the Inter- American Development Bank (IDB) president Luis Alberto Moreno, who visited the country in November 2010, the government’s transparency initiative is making progress.

Using recent World Bank statistics, Moreno explained that Belize had made great strides since the Barrow administration took office in the capital, Belmopan. Barrow said the facts as outlined by the World Bank and IDB, “who have no axes to grind”, are irrefutable achievements of his government. To bolster the sentiment, the UDP has introduced legislation that will apply stiff penalties, including jail sentences for public officers and politicians who contravene the new Finance and Audit Reform Act. “I think we made tremendous progress on that front and that in my view will also help to frame the campaign for the election,” said the Prime Minister in a telephone interview from his office.

Barrow said that he plans to restore good governance to the country as the central part of his bid for a second term (though general elections are not constitutionally due until the first quarter of 2013). In addition, the Prime Minister wants his work on the economy to figure prominently in the next elections too. “We are making progress,” he said. “There are certain thing like natural disasters which are beyond our control and certain things which have to do with private sector management of particular areas of the economy that, again, the government can do very little about.” In October 2010, Hurricane Richard caused an estimated $33 million in damage mainly to the citrus industry.

Belize is keen to show that it has more than its attractive tourist assets to offer and that, despite many challenges, it is a country that is open for business. The discovery of crude oil in commercial quantities in 2006 has the potential to help the country springboard out of the difficult position it has recently found itself in following the global financial crisis. Published data puts current oil production for Belize at an estimated 3,000 barrels daily, of which about 1,960 barrels are exported.

Tourism now ranks as the chief foreign exchange earner for Belize, having displaced agriculture in the last decade as the backbone of the country’s economy. And yet agriculture remains a key economic mainstay, and one that can be expanded still further. For the time being at least, tourism and agriculture are set to remain the twin pillars of the economy. “Generally the economy is very much on the mend, led by tourism, led by energy generation, led by several other sectors,” said Barrow.

A major hurdle Belize has to come to grips with is an escalating crime problem. The year just ended will go down in the history of this small country of 333,200 people as the bloodiest year on record. A unprecedented 110 homicides had been committed by November and it was expected that the figure would grow even as government-led initiatives were starting to kick in. Much of the violence is blamed on the high unemployment of urban black youths, gang rivalry and the illegal drugs trade.

As part of Central America, Belize stands to benefit substantially from the US-backed Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which is a $165 million programme designed to help improve regional security through community initiatives. It will also provide assistance in the fight against narcotics and arms trafficking and will be used to implement gang prevention and economic and social programming for at-risk youths, who are adversely impacted by crime.

On this and other issues, Belize has to work with its neighbours despite the uncertainties of its relationship with Guatemala, which claims more than half of Belize’s territory as its own. When both countries can agree upon a date for their citizens to vote in a popular referendum, the International Court of Justice in The Hague will make a final determination on the question. The process has been significantly advanced through mediation efforts facilitated by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Although the Guatemalan claim continues to hang over the country like a dark cloud, ordinary Belizeans and Guatemalans are as friendly as any two neighbouring peoples can be. Marriages involving spouses from respective countries are common and children from Guatemala come across the western border early every morning to attend elementary and high school in Belize, returning home to Guatemala in the evening. And both governments have been able successfully to work out a partial agreement whereby agriculture products are traded without hindrance between Belize and Guatemala. One challenge for Belizean authorities is the matter of preventing illegal xate (ornamental palm) farmers from Guatemala from crossing the shared, open border with seeming impunity to harvest the valuable crop, which fetches high prices abroad.

As well as belonging to the OAS, Belize is a fully-fledged member of the Caribbean Community, which has its Climate Change Centre based in Belmopan. Belize was also one of the first states in the Caribbean to exchange Britain’s Privy Council as its final appellate court, in favour of the Caribbean Court of Justice.

As the only English-speaking country on the Central American isthmus, Belize greatly values its special relationship with the Caribbean and acts as bridge between the mainland and its island neighbours. A long-running radio jingle on the now-defunct Radio Belize aptly called Belize “the Caribbean beat in the heart of Central America”; it is a phrase that well describes the mindset that continues to hold sway across the country today. As one of the so-called ‘jewels of the Caribbean’, the country is very much in a key position to enjoy and make the most of both its sub-regional neighbourhoods.

About the author:

Patrick Jones is a journalist and television presenter in Belize


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