Letter 6 from Belize: The British legacy
I make no apology for addressing some controversial issues here. Belize is a small republic that has struggled to discover its own identity. After more than 300 years of occupation, during which its indigenous peoples and natural resources were exploited by avaricious British colonists, we find today that some things haven’t changed.
Belize, like most of Central America, was the home of the Maya civilization for over 3500 years.
They were an advanced race, deeply rooted in their religion, with a sophisticated understanding of both mathematics and astronomy. Later, from the east, came the Garífuna, a hybrid tribe resulting from an intermarriage of escaped Nigerian slaves, with native Carib and Arawak communities on St Vincent. Also from the east came the Creoles, formerly African slaves in the West Indies. Then from surrounding Hispanic nations came the mestizos, most fleeing from internecine wars. It was Spain who first laid claim to rights of ownership of Belize, but it was the British Baymen who actually occupied the land, harvesting the rich supplies of logwood and mahogany. A fierce dispute raged between Britain and Spain until 1798, when the Spaniards were finally routed in the battle of St George’s Caye. This saw the beginning of nearly two further centuries of British occupation.
Never in the history of colonialism has a country been occupied for the benefit of its own indigenous peoples. In Belize, the Maya were driven out because they were an obstacle to the mahogany business. African slaves were shipped over to provide the colonists with cheap labour. Land was monopolized, raped of its natural resources, and the people made largely dependent on imported food because the colonists never attempted to create an infrastructure for local agriculture. The history of the occupation is an epic tale of suppression. Though I have yet to hear any criticism from modern day Belizeans about the British occupation, I do detect a strong sense of pride in their new-found independence. But the major struggle for them has been to lift themselves up from a state of dependence, and take full and purposeful ownership of their own destiny.
Independence eventually arrived in 1981, as a result of continued workers’ resistance to unfair wages and labour laws, followed by the emergence of a Nationalist Movement, which spawned the People’s United Party (PUP), led by the charismatic George Cadle Price. Their objective was “to gain for the people of this country political and economic independence”. But they also had to address the very tricky issue of the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. This is an ancient right originating from the terms of independence granted by Spain in 1892 to the newly freed territories. Guatemala had every intention of regaining this territory, thus opening up access to the Atlantic ports. In other words, Belize needed the continued British military presence to safeguard their sovereignty after independence.
Belizean politics is dominated by a typical two party democratic system, structured on the British
model of government. The PUP dominated for several years after independence, but has recently been challenged by the United Democratic Party (UDP), which is currently in power. Its leader and Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, is Belize’s first black leader. It is a very robust and confrontational political environment, debate frequently ignited and kindled by openly biased press coverage, which will highlight the corruption, fraud, nepotism and mismanagement of the opposing party. Especially confrontational is the biggest national newspaper, Amandala, whose signature catchphrase is “power to the people”.
Lord Michael Ashcroft
There remains a vestige of rapacious colonialism in the person of Michael Ashcroft, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and its major donor. Ashcroft has aroused much controversy over his dealings in Belize, from where he has run much of his international financial empire since the early 1990s. He holds dual British and Belizean nationality, and is rumoured to have made a donation of $1 million to the PUP when it was in opposition. When the PUP came to power again after defeating the UDP, it subsequently introduced several pieces of legislation financially advantageous to Lord Ashcroft. They included a law giving tax-exempt status to some companies, including Ashcroft’s offshore holding company Belize Holding Inc (BHI).
The Ashcroft-owned Bank of Belize was also granted the exclusive right to set up offshore companies in Belize for US and UK citizens. In short, Lord Ashcroft has been able to ruthlessly pursue his business dealings, making a huge personal fortune, without paying any tax to either the British or Belizean governments. What do many Belizeans think of all this? Click here. The leading Belize newspaper Amandala has been particularly critical of Ashcroft’s influence in the country.
To give you an example of his control in Belize; when I arrived in Dangriga, I asked about the availability of Skype, the free internet-based telephone service. I was astounded to learn that the facility is not available in Belize. Why? Well, Lord Ashcroft happens to have a controlling share in Belize Telemedia (BTL) and, to protect his profits, he has been able to disable the service. On the one hand he congratulates himself for “investing” in Belize, but on the other hand, he denies its citizens some of the basic services that everyone in the free world can access.
In the words of Amandala, he should give back “power to the people”!