Looking for Balance in Belize: Celebrating Its First Twenty-Five Years, This Young Nation Is Forging a Dual Identity, Caribbean and Central American, as It Faces the Challenges of Independence

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25 Belize is at once Caribbean and Central American. To Belizeans, this is not a contradiction, but an affirmation that goes to the heart of their national identity and shared aspirations. Walk down the street in Belize City, and you will hear Creole--the country's lingua france--but also English and Spanish and probably Garifuna and a Maya language, too.

"We pride ourselves--delight, in fact--in our cultural diversity," Prime Minister Said Musa explained in a recent interview with Americas. In its first quarter century as an independent nation, he said, Belize has worked hard to build a society of inclusion.

Musa, who is half Palestinian on his father's side and a combination of Scot and Maya on his mother's, doesn't like the image of a melting pot; rather he sees the country's diversity as a strength. "It is taking the best from each culture, from each ethinicity, and forging that into something new--that we call Belizean."

Tucked under Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, on the Caribbean coast of Central America, Belize--known in colonial days as British Honduras--has a population of around 280,000, spread out over an area twice the size of Jamaica. Today, about half of Belizeans are mestizo and another 10 percent Maya. Afro-European Creoles make up about a quarter of the population, and the Garifuna--a Caribbean people of mixed African and Amerindian descent--6 percent. Other groups, including Lebanese, Chinese, and Europeans, account for the balance.

Belize's dual identity as a Caribbean and Central American nation is evident everywhere--from its white-sand beaches and turquoise waters to its tropical rain forests and pre-Columbian ruins. In the international arena, Belize belongs to both the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Central American Integration System (SICA). Belize's currency bears the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state under the Commonwealth; its national beer, Belikin, bears the image of the Maya temple of Altun Ha.

Most importantly, the Belizean people themselves embody these different worlds and experiences. Anthony Mat, a University of Belize student, has cousins who are black, cousins who are white and others who, like himself, look mestizo, reflecting the family's Spanish and indigenous ancestry. This has a positive effect, Mai says: "You don't really get to hate anybody. It's like I would be hating my first cousin."

Museum of Belize curator Theresa Batty grew up in Belize City, the country's commercial center, where the Creole culture is most dominant. "We share so much with the Afro-Caribbean: language, food, dress, music, and features," Batty says. And yet, she adds, her own family's roots reach not only to Africa and Europe--including Ireland and Spain--but also to some of the oldest documented Maya villages in Belize's Yalbac region.

Cruz Llinas was born in Guatemala but began going to school just across the border, in Benque Viejo, Belize, when he was five years old. He went on to complete the sixth form, equivalent to junior college in the United States, and is now a naturalized Belizean citizen. "Belize has opened doors for me," says the twenty-one-year-old hotel clerk, who switches easily from English to Spanish and in his heart feels both Belizean and Guatemalan.

"Belize is a peaceful place, a free place. You walk around, nobody bugs you" says Irene Swazo, a Garifuna vendor who sells fruits and vegetables near the landmark Swing Bridge in the heart of Belize City. The biggest problem, she adds, is that wages are low and prices are high. "I pray to God every day that things will get better."

During the interview in his office in Belmopan, the country's verdant inland capital, Prime Minister Musa recognized that the country still has a lot of work to do to combat poverty and ensure that everyone can participate fully in development. But, he noted, under the leadership of George Price (see page 14) the country began to promote inclusion of all Belizeans into society--in the police force, the education system, government offices, businesses, and other fields--and to build a consensus about national aspirations. …