Written by Godfrey Smith
Thursday, 06 September 2007 www.belizetimes.bz
Hurricane, Aids, Crime
Like three horsemen of the apocalypse, hurricanes, HIV-AIDS and crime lay bare, like no other phenomenon, the soft underbelly of Belize and the inherent vulnerability and precariousness of living in Belize. Taken together or singly, these three can decimate the population, wreak socio-economic havoc and bring the country to its knees. They do not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, class, ethnicity or anything else. Neither of them, notwithstanding humankind’s sprawling scientific and technological advances, can yet be eradicated. Their impact and effect can, however, be substantially reduced by thoughtful planning and implementing certain basic measures. The measures though basic often require a major cultural or lifestyle shift and it is always difficult for changes of this nature to take root and produce the desired effect.
Take hurricanes, for instance. After Hurricane Hattie devastated the swamplands of Belize City in 1961, George Price embarked on his vision to build a new capital on safer ground. The simplicity and logic of his vision was captured in the proposition: If Belize City is built on a swamp and hurricanes are ineluctable, it follows that a new city must be built on higher ground, inland. Belmopan City stands as the greatest and most enduring domestic political achievement of any Belizean leader. But as is often the case the vision was ahead of its time and as a people we still have not quite caught up with it. Belmopan is the administrative capital to which many people commute daily but where few want to live. Yet, it becomes a Mecca during a threat of hurricane. A growing number of persons are acquiring “hurricane homes” in Belmopan City. In the national psyche it is the place to go to when there is a hurricane.
City in the swamp
For Mr. Price’s vision to have come full bloom, successive governments would have had to make tough and politically sensitive decisions over a course of time and based on a plan of action. For example, with the Executive and Legislative branches of government already in Belmopan City, there should have been a plan to relocate the Judiciary there. On the premise that people will go where jobs are available, the government would have to encourage, through the use of fiscal incentives and joint ventures, the location and development of businesses, like data processing centers, in Belmopan City. But perhaps the most challenging aspect of realizing the vision is getting people to live in Belmopan, for their own safety and security. Government housing or government-aided housing should be able to resist at least a Category 3 hurricane as well be located well away from flood-prone areas of the country. This would eliminate many parts of Belize City but would, in the longer term, redound to the benefit of people. This is an extremely hard sell since most Belize City dwellers, especially the most destitute, simply refuse to live in any other part of Belize, other than Belize City. The country’s most powerful politicians tend to be Belize-City based and are therefore condemned to perpetuate the absurdity of building in the swamps. For politicians, it is far easier (and safer) to cater to the electorate than to risk educating and persuading them to act in their own best interest. The hard fact is that only after a serious hurricane destroys Belize City will many people come alive to the reality that leaving low-lying Belize City and living inland is a must for many.
The church & condoms
Similarly, controlling the spread of the scourge of AIDS has a lot to do with being able to programme (or re-programme) people’s minds. Minds are best programmed when they are young. The following proposition contains a small but perfect grain of truth: People will engage in sexual intercourse. Unprotected sexual intercourse can lead to the spread of HIV-AIDS. The most realistic and practical safeguard against HIV-AIDS is the use of a condom. Therefore people, especially those in school, should be educated to use condoms. But when the force of logic clashes with the power of the Roman Catholic Church, the logical proposition is worth little more than the paper it is written on. There are about 270 primary schools in Belize. The Roman Catholic Church manages about 125 of them. There are about 37 high schools in Belize, of which about 15 are catholic managed. Encouraging condom use is strictly against the canons of Roman Catholicism. So a national educational campaign to combat HIV-AIDS through safe sex goes off half-cocked. Separate from the issue of reconciling the impasse with the Roman Catholic Church, the National Strategic HIV-AIDS Plan 2006-2011 contains crucial recommendations that should received national support.
Too much democracy?
The recent spate of violent crime in Belize has again brought the issue of how best to control crime to the forefront of national discourse. Nothing ignites people’s fear and feeling of personal vulnerability more than random violence. Fear and anger, being emotional responses, lead to knee-jerk and superficial recommendations on how to control crime. The reality is that Belize, like the majority of small, poor countries will indefinitely struggle to control crime. As difficult as it might be to accept, one of the first things people should realize is that the democracy we knowingly adopted and practice makes it doubly difficult for poor states to control crime. This is because the “liberty of the individual” enjoys centrality of place in western-style democracies. To safeguard this liberty a corpus of human rights norms are placed at the heart of western constitutions. Foremost among these norms is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This norm reflects the core western belief that it is better for guilty men to go free than to have one innocent man be wrongfully imprisoned. Consequently and over time, the law has constructed many highly technical requirements that must be satisfied before someone can be found guilty of crimes like murder. Any technical misstep can lead to an acquittal.
To prepare, build and prosecute an airtight case these days requires highly motivated, well-trained, well-paid police officers and prosecutors with access to a modern forensic laboratory and competent judges who won’t muck up summations to the juries and then be reversed by a higher court. It is therefore very expensive to secure convictions and much cheaper to pay a defence lawyer to pick at holes and look for a technical misstep. The issue of witness protection alone is enough to highlight the nature and magnitude of the problem. May crimes go un-prosecuted or end in failed prosecutions because key witnesses are afraid to give state evidence. Belize is too small to hide witnesses and too poor to maintain them with new identities in another country. We have therefore, by choice, adopted a system of justice in which the presumption of innocence is paramount. By implication, the system is weighted in favor of those who would commit crimes and shelter under this presumption and weighted against the state. In contrast, small countries like Cuba and Singapore, described by some western powers as a dictatorship and a benign dictatorship, seem to have managed to bring crime to controllable levels. In those countries, individual liberty, historically at least, was not allowed to trump the public interest. The difficulty is of course: who determines the public interest and can they be trusted to make such a determination? But we have already made our choice so, as Frank Costello said in The Departed, there’s no use crying over spilt Guinness.
The seminal, most comprehensive and relevant study on crime in Belize is still the Crimes Commission Report of 1992. The report found the underlying causes of crime to be weakness in the family unit, deficiencies in the educational system, economic deprivation, drug trafficking and abuse, infiltration of North American culture and a debased system of values. To these can be added the high number of deportees sent back to Belize annually from the United States and availability of guns that accompany drugs coming into Belize. Any meaningful and sustainable plan to combat crime must continually review, update and implement the recommendations in that report.
In the meantime, short-term tools to deal with alarming flare-ups of violence are available under the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act. Crime hot spots can be declared “special areas” and any area not exceeding one square mile may be so declared for a period of thirty days during which time the security forces may, without warrant, conduct seizures and searches of premises, vehicles or persons; arrest any person upon reasonable suspicion of his having committed or of being about to commit a crime; temporarily establish a cordon around the special area or any part thereof for a period not exceeding 3 hours in any period of 24 hours and restrict the freedom of movement of persons and vehicles into or out of any area so cordoned. But such measures tend to be short-lived since crime hot spots are located in constituencies of high-profile Belize-City politicians who invariably have to weather a storm of protest in reaction to drastic state action.