October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Who lives there?: Around 300,000 people. Belize is one of the most multi-ethnic places in the world. Around 33% are Mestizo settlers from central Mexico, around 25% are Kriol (or Creole) descendents of slaves brought to the Caribbean. There rest are a mixture of numerous different groups including: indigenous Mayans (from at least three different tribes), Garinagu (a group of mixed African and indigenous Caribbean ancestry), Spanish, English, Indian, Mennonite farmers, Chinese, central American refugees and the descendent of confederate refugees from the American civil war.
Around 50% speak fluent English and around 50% speak fluent Spanish. There is some overlap and many other languages are also spoken.
How does the system work? (the theory): Belize is a constitutional monarchy. The monarch is also the monarch of the United Kingdom. She is monarch of Belize in its own right but as she cannot be expected to be in Belize much of the time she appoints a Governor General as her representative in the nation. The Governor General exercises power in name only and will always obey the wishes of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister is the head of the Executive and is chosen by the largest party in the lower house. The legislative is bicameral. The lower house is the House of Representatives, which has 31 members elected by first past the post for five year terms (although the Prime Minister can call the election early). The lower house has considerably more power.
The Senate is appointed by the Governor General – it has 12 members appointed for five year terms. By convention the Governor General appoints 6 on the advice of the Prime Minister, 3 on the advice on the leader of the opposition and one each on the advice of the Belize Council of Churches, the Belize Chamber of Commerce, and the Belize Trade Union Congress.
Local Government consists of elected local Town councils and boards, who in turn elect executive mayors to administer local services. Town Councils have the power to pass local laws. There is lower, village council, tier but it has considerably less power. It largely acts as a focal point for local community orgnisations.
In addition many Mayan tribes have a traditional elected community leader, and the government have given these leaders some limited executive and judicial powers. The Menonite community administers its own form of local government based upon their religious leaders, and formal treaties grant them the right to do so without government interference.
How does the system work? (the practice): Whilst Belize’s government is broadly exemplary, there are concerns with corruption and buying of political favours; particularity at the local level. Belize City – the largest city but not the capital – has had many problems with corruption and the Mayor was recently elected.
How did we get here?: Belize was one of the centres of the Mayan civilization. In time it was colonised both by Spanish and British loggers and British pirates. Following several battles with pirates in the area, the British claimed it as a colony – something the Spanish never recognised. The British abolished slavery in 1838, but the abolition was poorly enforced in Belize, and conditions only improved for non-whites following a series of constitutional amendments. These began in the 1950s, and resulted in self-government by 1964 and full independence in 1980.
Politics was initially dominated by the centre-right PUP who had led the struggle for independence. Over time a centre-left party, the UDP, appeared as their main rival. The UDP first won an election in 1984 and elections have been reasonably competitive ever since. In 2005 the PUP government was brought down by riots over high taxes and the UDP won a landslide at the subsequent election. Their leader, Dean Barrow, became Belize’s first ever black Prime Minster.
Who’s in charge?: The last elections, in 2008, confirmed Barrow’s and the UDP’s control over the country. The UDP won 25 seats to the PUP’s 6. No third party made any impact. Of course, in Mayan and Mennonite communities, people are much more inclined to listen to their local leaders than they are the Government.
What does it look like?: The world’s second longest barrier reef is off the coast of Belize. As a result the coastline is very sheltered and consequentially very marshy. There is one area of wooded highlands. 60% of the mainland is covered in tropical forest, the rest is arable farmland and savannah. The rich biodiversity of Belize means that 40% of the land and all the reefs are natural parks – making Belize proportionally the most environmentally protected country on earth.
What are the issues?: One of the biggest concerns is the ongoing dispute with Guatamala – which is technically a frozen conflict. Guatamala has never acknowledged the existence of Belize – a state of affairs that dates back to the Spanish refusal to acknowledge the British colony. There have been frequent violent clashes at the border and, whilst both sides are determined to solve the issue peacefully there have been deaths in live fire incidents – most recently in 2000. Peace talks in 2008 led to a commitment to hold simultaneous referendums on the issue on both sides of the border – but the political turmoil in Guatamala has so far precluded this.
Linked in with this, is the so-called corn war. This involves (predominantly Mennonite) farmers who make a living selling Belizian cornflour to Jamaica. They are of the opinion that Belizian milling is not up to the standard they require and so export their corn to Guatamala to be turned into cornflour which they then export to Jamaica (via Belize). In order to support Belizian millers, and due to poor relations with Guatamala, the Government has attempted to crack down both on the export of corn to Guatamala and on the export of non-Belizian-milled cornflour. This has led to an impasse between the farmers and the government – with farmers vocally opposing the crackdown and trying to find any possible way around it.
The government has attempted to pass constitutional reforms which would, amongst other things, allow wire-tapping, allow detention without trial for short periods, and allow the state to seize land which contained mineral resources without compensation. These changes have proven controversial and, despite its large majority, the government has so far failed to get its way.
A good source of impartial information is: Belize has a free press – but not much in the way of media exists. There are no dailys, and most of the weeklys are run by political parties. Belizian is an independent news blog, the Reporter is a non affiliated weekly and the San Pedro Sun is a community run newspaper for the islands on the barrier reef.
A good book is: The Making of Modern Belize: Politics, Society and British Colonialism in Central America is a little dated but nothing as comprehensive has been written since. Belize in Focus is shorter but more up-to-date. You get quite a good feeling for what Belize is like from the Paul Theroux written film The Mosquito Coast or you could just read the book – although you would then miss out on the all star cast. Another film The Dogs Of War has nothing to do with Belize but was filmed there – and includes many shots of the beautiful forest countryside.
When are the next elections?: Elections have to be held by 2013.