Independence comes to poor, ramshackel Belize
Belize City, Belize
As this dispatch was begun -- by candlelight -- a four-hour powr blackout ended. Outages are just one of things you get used to in this town, a seeming mixture of turn-of-the-century London, Dodge City, and ancient Mesopotamia.Skip to next paragraph
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Now that sovereignty over Belize has been symbolically handed to Prime Minister George C. Price by Queen Elizabeth's representative, Prince Michael of Kent, Belize has taken its place as a free and independent member of the world community of nations. Banners hung downtown by the government proclaim, "independence, ah ready," but whether Belize is truly prepared for its new status as a nation remains to be seen.
Aldous Huxley said of this place, "If the world has any ends, this would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. it is all but uninhabited."
He was writing 50 years ago, when it was called British Honduras, but things havent's changed much. About 145,000 people live in this country the size of Massachusetts (or neighboring El Salvador, where 5 million live).
Besides being underpopulated and essentially undeveloped, Belize is a poor country, where the per capita income is roughly $1,000 per year. Imports outstrip exports, and the government has borrowed from the country's commercial banks to avoid budget deficits the past four years.
Bordering the Caribbean Sea in the northeast corner of Central America, Belize is well off the beaten track. The Pan American Highway doesn't come near here and big ships don't cross the great barrier reef, which lies just offshore.
Consequently, Belize's charms -- Mayan ruins, miles of rain forests and jungle, the reef and all its otherwordly delights, what the natives feel is the best reggae music in the world, Rastafarians who wear their hair in braids called (dread locks" and smoke ganja (marijuana) as part of their religious ritual, and lobster dinners at $2.50 -- have remained relatively well-kept secrets.
The independence celebrations over the weekend climaxed a 31-year drive by Prime Minister Price and his People's United Party, which grew out of the worldwide anticolonial movement after World War II.
This collection of black Caribs, Creoles (descendants of African slaves and English mahogany traders and pirates), Mayan Indians, and mestizos (those of mixed Spanish and Indian ancenstry) will be a nonaligned third-world country.
The plot is thickened by the fierce military dictatorship in neighboring Guattemala, which claims that the whole of Belize belongs to them because of an century-old treaty with the British. Belize has a tiny, untested Army, so the Queen has committed the defense force that has been here for the past 150 years to stay until the Belizeans can defend themselves or for "an appropriate time."
Many Belizeans, particularly those who live in Belize City, see that city as a sad monument to the nation's ill-preparedness for independence. Almost one-third of the country's population lives in this dirty, cramped, steamy former capital.