Belize - on the Rim of the Cauldron

Article excerpt

Most accounts of Central America neglect to even mention Belize. However, policy-makers in Washington have quickly become aware of the strategic importance of this small country.

Belize (formerly British Honduras) is the newest country in Central America, having gained its independence on September 21, 1981. It borders Mexico on the north, Guatemala on the west and south, and faces the Caribbean to the east. It is the most sparsely populated country in Central America. The land area, at 8,867 square miles, is slightly larger than that of El Salvador, but holds a population of only 160,000 (compared to Salvador's 5 million).

Seen against the background of the present intensifying crisis in central America, the key question about Belize is whether it can be turned into a U.S. stronghold against the emerging national liberation and socialist movements of the region, or will be drawn into and become a part of these movements. The facts and analysis presented in what follows should help to answer this question.

The Belizean government boasts that the country stands at the crossroads between Central America and the Caribbean, and a look at the racial and ethnic make-up of the population tends to support this assertion. The majority of the population consists of Creole (black), Garifuna (Black-Carib), Maya Indian and Mestizo (Indian/Spanish) people. There are also smaller groups of Chinese, Lebanese, East Indian, and European descent.

The official language of Belize is English, but Spanish is increasingly widely spoken. Moreover, the various ethnic groups continue to use their own language in daily conversation.

Seedy Beginnings

Although Belize was for a century prior to independence a British colony, the territory was always a backwater of the colonial world. Belize was at the center of Maya civilization, which began its decline after 900 A.D. But neither the Spanish nor the British had much interest in this jungle-covered, swampy strip of land.

In the middle 1600s, Belize became a favored hideout of British pirates who navigated the channels off Belizehs Caribbean reef. From these seedy beginnings the Baymen (as the European settlers were called) turned to the production of logwood and mahogany for the British market.

The British, although helping the Baymen to repel Spanish attacks from time to time, seemed content to maintain an informal colonial relationship with Belize. However, with growing U.S. expansionism in the 1800s, Britain moved to consolidate control over its western Caribbean dependencies, and Belize was formally colonized in 1862.

Land and Labor

Although a colonial backwater, Belize was subject to the same historical processes of land monopolization and labor control as other underdeveloped areas. Nigel Bolland describes this history as follows:

From the beginning land ownership in Belize has been highly concentrated and, since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been nin the hands of metropolitan companies, particularly the Belize Estate and Produce Co. which owns just under a million acres or almost a half of all the freeheld land. Labour, initially slaves imported from Africa and the West Indian colonies, were tied to the enterprises of these landowners. (O. Nigel Bolland, "Labour Control in Post Abolition Belize," Journal of Belizean Affairs, December 1979, p. 22)

Slavery was formally abolished in 1838, only to be replaced by systems of labor control which promoted wage-slavery.

Among the techniques of labour control used in Belize were the monopolization of land ownership, a system of labor contracts, a combination of advance and truck systems to induce indebtedness, and the use of magistrates as agents of labour discipline....

The transition was not from slavery to freedom but, rather, from one system of labor control to another, and the old struggle between former masters and slaves continued, although in new forms. …