Opinion | Morgan Liddick: A tale of two countries
On Your Right
Travel broadens one’s horizons. And it provides excellent training in what our military refers to as “situational awareness.” So when my Spidey sense started tingling mightily Thursday last, I paid attention.
I was standing in a former “porte-cochere,” a covered area on a spacious semicircular driveway intended for vehicles arriving at the formerly impressive customs area of the Port of Belize. There is now a roughly painted brick wall separating the port and customs house from the street, and both entrances to the drive were closed by tall, iron gates onto which sheet steel had been welded. Outside the narrow gap in the gate guarded by burly, uniformed men with guns, was a street full of indifferently clothed and shod, jostling, shouting, young men. Inside the port area were many other large, uniformed, armed men, none of them smiling. To even a casual observer, Belize looked like trouble.
Because it is. After its name was officially changed and full independence from Britain was granted in September 1981, Belize began to come apart. It has had a series of revolving-door governments assembled by its two main political parties, neither of which could come to grips with its most serious problems: unemployment, rampant crime and corruption, the latter two often involved with the drug trade.
A 2012 “Freedom House” report rated Belize “generally free” with an active political system, regular elections and turnover in power but cited rampant corruption as a serious threat. Corruption, particularly among the political class, remained a problem in 2017, when Freedom House noted that “… there is little political will to address the issue. Anticorruption laws are poorly enforced … favoritism influences the government’s awarding of licenses and public contracts. In 2016, the government faced accusations of corruption over the issuance of visas and passports; in August of that year, a special audit that confirmed the involvement of high-ranking officials became public.” There are also issues and controversy over the government’s nationalization of the nationwide broadcasting network for the second time.
As a result of this vigorous government disinterest, Belize languishes, and its people suffer – needlessly because the place is potentially one of the most interesting tourist draws in the Americas, with Mayan and other archeological sites, the Americas’ largest coral reef system and a plethora of ecotourism possibilities, almost none of which is being developed. Its leaders ignore their resources and people: It is a country with a relatively good per capita income but widespread poverty and unemployment, as the CIA notes in its World Factbook.
People with an interest in why things come out the way they do should contrast Belize with an even smaller part of the British Commonwealth: the tiny island of Grand Cayman and its two sisters.
Although still a territory of Great Britain, Grand Cayman is pretty self-governing. Following a two-year campaign by island women, in 1959 Cayman received its first written constitution that allowed them to vote and separated Cayman politically from Jamaica.The political structure changed twice more thereafter. Nowadays, according to Nicola Foote’s “Caribbean Reader,” about the only obligation the governor has to the British Crown is that of keeping the Royal Executive Council informed of goings-on.
In the early 1950s, the economy of the Caymans suffered twin blows: markets for turtle meat and sisal rope, the island’s two major exports, collapsed. Things looked very grim for a bit, but a resident organized regular air service with a military surplus flying boat and a flourishing tourist industry sprang up. Ten years later, enabling legislation was passed to encourage the banking industry in Cayman. Thanks for these innovations by locals, the economy of the Caymans is flourishing, with the highest standard of living in the Caribbean. Although downtown Georgetown, the capital, still has its share of chickens to keep scorpions in check, there are modern buildings galore, the infrastructure works, traffic is orderly, the security one sees is unarmed and everyone seems to smile. It is a very different place from Belize.
Belize and the Cayman Islands have much the same history and partook of the same colonial system. The former has many more natural resources, a much larger population and fewer physical challenges to development than the latter. And yet, with only modest assistance and a great deal of local drive and innovation, Grand Cayman is miles ahead of its onshore cousin. People currently squawking about dumping a ton of money on Central America to cure its problems might first sit down and think long and hard about why.
The answer might not be to their liking.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015 and currently lives in Virginia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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