Independence comes to poor, ramshackel 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.

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.

There are a few British colonial-style manors and some concrete buildings, but most of the city is rickety, ramshackle timber houses, stores, hotels and diners. Many buildings are on stilts to catch the afternoon tradewinds and to avoid the occasional tidal wave. The open canals that dissect the city have a rank stench because the sewers -- in the districts that have toilets -- flow into them.

HurricaneHattie killed 269 and nearly blew Belize City off the map in 1961 -- resulting in the decision to build a new capital, Belmopan, 30 miles inland -- and visitors get the feeling it was never totally rebuilt.

As Chicago is called "the city that works," so Belize City could be the city that doesn't.Unemployment estimates run to 30 percent for men, even higher for teen-agers and women.

The Belizean worker is not held in high regard. "The pool of unskilled labor is huge," says one employer.

Much of that, explains Norris Hall, the government's chief information officer, "is the result of colonial education system that did not prepare students for production, but for white-collar and odd civil service jobs."

"Decolonization is a long process, taking generations," Mr. Hall says. The government offers priority scholarships to agricultural, medical and engineering students to that end. Machinery that breaks down here often stays down. The country's remoteness makes the shipping of replacement parts slow and expensive.

"How," a taxi driver wonders aloud, "can we be independent and not able to fix the holes in the streets?"

The road system in Belize is the worst in Central America. Automobiles are nearly all big gas guzzlers, bought cheaply in the US and driven through Mexico. Drivers say compact cars would fly apart on the roads here.

The Latins in the northern sugar cane district of Corozal speak Spanish among themselves, the Caribs of Dangriga (which the British called Stann Creek) speak Carib, and everyone seems to speak a combination of those two and a jivery English they call Creole (that's "krale").

There is no television. The country's only mass medium is government-run Radio Belize, a pleasant blend of music, news, propaganda, and British soap operas, broadcast in Spanish and English.

The newspapers are small and generally amateurish. Evan X. Hyde, publisher of the largest nongovernment paper regularly refers to the prime minister as "Jones," a reference to Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult in Guyana, to warn that Mr. Price is leading the country to national suicide.

The subculture -- those who spend their days drinking rum, smoking marijuana, moving to reggae, or playing pool and sitting in doorways looking over the tourists -- is disproportionately large. And Belizean life is so "laid back" that it can often tip over.

Is Belize really ready for independence?

"It don't really matter now, says one young Belizean, "because we are."

"You'd better Belize it," chimes Radio Belize.

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