In a modern and functional urban home today, a Belizean family needs a car, a refrigerator, a stove, a washer, a dryer, a home computer. You would also like to have a microwave oven, a couple television sets, a couple radios, cell phones, laptop computers, and the sophisticated third millennium gadgetry which combines telephones with computers.
We do not manufacture any of these equipments and appliances in Belize. We have to buy them from rich countries; in Belize’s case, we purchase most of our equipments and appliances from the United States. But many of these products are actually manufactured or assembled in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, or Mexico. This is because American companies, which own the manufacturing patents, have been “outsourcing” the actual factory production to these other countries and then shipping the finished products back to the United States for worldwide distribution. The labor costs are so low in other countries compared to America’s unionized labor costs that American companies can outsource production, pay for the shipping, and still make more money than they would manufacturing same in the continental U.S.A.
There are Belizean products the Americans and the Europeans buy from us. These include sugar, citrus, bananas, fish, lobster, shrimp, cacao, and papaya. On the world market, the unit price of our primary products is much less than the unit price of the manufactured products we import into Belize in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” It’s a tricky concept to explain. Let’s just say, as an example, Belize has to produce hundreds of pounds of sugar when we want to buy a single washing machine.
It is clear that Belizeans do not earn enough foreign exchange with our agricultural products in order to sustain the urban lifestyle we desire. We are a debtor nation, and we run a permanent deficit where foreign exchange is concerned.
Our Belizean workers in the United States help to reduce this permanent foreign exchange deficit when they send money home to Belize, and Belize’s relatively new industry – overnight and cruise tourism, is also a foreign exchange earner for Belize. Another foreign exchange earner for Belize is when foreigners invest in Belize or when they retire in Belize. When Belizean gangsters move drugs like cocaine and marijuana to America, this illegal activity also earns foreign exchange for Belize. Still, what we produce in Belize cannot pay for what we import from abroad. Belize owes, and Belize is financially poor.
There is a substantial part of Belize’s population which does not live in cities and towns: they live in villages and other rural areas. In the first instance, they are more interested in owning land and horses and cows and farm implements and tractors than the electronic appliances which urban folks feel they must have in their homes. The lifestyle of rural Belizeans is less comfortable than that of urbanized Belizeans, yet the rural Belizeans are producing more foreign exchange than the urbanized Belizeans. So, we must refer to our farmers and fishermen as the salt of the Belizean earth.
Around the time Belize became a self-governing colony in 1964, sugar became our main export crop. There is a problem with having your farmers become so dedicated to, and reliant on, a single export crop, and that problem is that your food production falls, and you turn around and have to import food with some of the same money you earn from the export crop. But, for years and decades, sugar seemed all sweetness in Belize, and the farmers of the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts increased their prosperity, improved their standards of living, and were better able to educate their children.
But various problems arose in the sugar industry. The main one was falling, and fluctuating, world prices. The supply of world sugar includes competitive sugar production by American and European cane and beet farmers who are only competitive because they are being subsidized by their wealthy governments. More supply means less demand, lower prices. Other problems for Belize’s sugar producers included crop diseases and infestations; rising fuel, fertilizer and pesticide prices; cane quality demands from the factory owners; inferior feeder roads; and so on.
On the macro side of things, the problem was that Belize had bet its future on the export crop economy, and had thus chosen not to satisfy our domestic food requirements, it always being remembered that, theoretically, Belize is in a very good position to feed itself and even export food commodities, if we so choose. Belize gambled on sugar, and the gamble looked good for a long time, but Belizeans never had any control over world market prices, and we never owned the sugar factory.
Sugar no longer dominates the economy of Belize the way it once did, but sugar is still a critically important industry in Belize. Apart from its foreign exchange earnings, the sugar industry here remains a proud symbol of how we, as a Belizean people, once looked to hard work and national productivity as our way forward to self-sufficiency and dignity.
When BSI/ASR, the owners of the factory, grind the sugar cane grown by the cane farmers and produce sugar juice, there is a by-product called bagasse, a trashy fiber. BSI/ASR invested over one hundred million dollars to find a use for the bagasse, which is now burnt to generate electricity. The cane farmers then said, let us wet our beak in this new revenue earner for our sugar cane. The company replied, saying that because the farmers had not invested in the process which had found a use for bagasse, the farmers therefore deserved nothing.
In strict business terms, the company probably has a point. But where the “spirit of the law” is concerned, the cañeros have to get a piece of this new action. It is their land and their cane. The company can’t be allowed to eat more from the cane without sharing some of the increased food with the primary producers. That is our position.
This is where philosophy comes in, you see. Neoliberal capitalism is about maximum profits and total greed. That was what BEC was about, and that was why the nationalist revolution began in Belize in 1950. Any cooking that goes on here in Belize, we Belizeans have to sit at the table. Even if foreigners sit at the head of the table, we Belizeans have to sit somewhere at that table.
And anywhere in this country where Belizeans are fighting to wet their beak, the rest of us Belizeans have to support. This is the basis of our nationalist philosophy at this newspaper – Belize for Belizeans, and Belizeans for Belizeans.
We are happy to hear that there was some progress this Wednesday in the talks between the company and the cañeros. We Belizeans hope this season begins as quickly as possible. Our cane farmers are paying a price for their stand on principle. Our support for the cañeros is unconditional.
We appreciate the fact that our politicians and economists have to be more cautious than we are. They know that we are a poor country, and that we need this industry and these revenues. When the Belizean people are willing to suffer pain in the fight for principle, however, we owe them respect and support.
Power to the people.