In tiny Belize and across the caribbean, big love for Obama
Cox News Service
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

BELIZE CITY, Belize Throughout the Caribbean, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has seized the imagination of residents and developed a fervid following.

Reggae singers from Trinidad to Kingston have recorded odes to Obama, neighborhood barbecues have morphed into impromptu rallies and debate-watching parties have sprung up in remote seaside villages. A poll by a Jamaican newspaper found that 94 percent of readers are rooting for Obama.

In Belize, a tiny, English-speaking melting pot tucked between Mexico and Guatemala, passions for Obama run particularly hot. The nation recently made its own history, electing its first black leader. Prime Minister Dean Barrow broke centuries of white and mestizo rule in February when residents swept the University of Miami-educated attorney into office.

Residents here say Obama might be even more popular than Barrow, and many believe his election could be more important to Belize since the country depends so heavily on the American economy.

"In Belize, we are going to go crazy if Barack wins," declared the Belize City newspaper Amandala in a recent editorial. "There is a lot of hate in the world today. If Barack wins, a deal of that would be replaced by hope."

Signs of Obama's popularity are scattered throughout Belize City, a gritty, bustling port of 60,000 that most tourists avoid on their way to Belize's islands and Mayan ruins.

Taxi driver Thomas Garcia welcomes visitors to Belize City's chaotic bus terminal with a flashy grin and a pitch for the candidate. "He is going to bring change to the whole world," Garcia shouts as he jumps into his taxi, an aging Ford van plastered with Obama bumper stickers.

Obama's support in Belize also seems to stem from a profound anger with the Bush administration and several Belizeans mistakenly thought Obama was running against Bush.

Belize, with about 300,000 people, is the smallest, but perhaps most diverse country on the American mainland.

Called British Honduras until shortly before its independence from England 27 years ago, its population is a blend of Mayan villagers, descendants of African slaves, Mennonite farmers and Chinese immigrants. With a recent influx of Central Americans from places like Honduras and El Salvador, drawn by higher wages and a booming construction industry, the nation has become majority mestizo, the term for mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage.

Despite the eclectic mix, reggae and dance hall music dominate and people of all races speak English with a Caribbean patois.

And American influence is stronger here than perhaps anywhere else in Latin America. Nearly one out of every four Belizeans live in the United States, mostly in Miami, New York City and Chicago. About 70 percent of Belize's 1 million annual tourists come from the U.S., which is also the nation's top trading partner. American networks are beamed into homes with cable TV and because Belize gets feeds from Colorado, it is saturated with the campaign ads dominating that swing state.

"So many Belizeans ././. are living in the U.S. and because we depend on U.S. television for so much of our international news we are particularly focused on the election," Prime Minister Barrow said in an interview.

Emelda Usher, a purchasing manager for a handicraft shop in Belize City, said she thinks Obama can turn around the U.S. economy. "We depend on American tourists," she said. "If (McCain) wins, it's down the gutter for us."

Charlotte Bernard, a handicraft seller in Belize City, said she is praying hard for an Obama victory. "It's not because I'm a black woman, but I want to see a black man rule," she said. "Things would be different ././. I would be so proud if he won."

Some in Belize however, wonder whether Republican candidate John McCain's tax policies might favor Belize, since he would continue tax cuts for wealthy American tourists.

"With Belize being a hotspot among wealthy vacationers, the tax reforms that Obama plans to put into place would severely cut the disposable income that this income tax bracket previously spent on vacationing and investing in Belize," opines an expat blog called the Belize Gringo. "On the other hand, such reforms might enable more middle-class income families to vacation in Belize, causing a rise in tourism."

Barrow called Obama a transformational candidate, whose candidacy seems to come out of a storybook. "It's an uplifting story for all the citizens of this country who are thinking, sentient beings," Barrow said. "The distinct possibility of a black man becoming president has to be an inspiration to all of us."

Some observers see similarities between Barrow and Obama: not only did Barrow become Belize's first black leader, but he also campaigned on a platform of institutional change, pledging to rid Belize's young democracy of cronyism and corruption.

Barrow, whose son is the American rapper Shyne, currently serving 10 years in prison for his role in a New York City club shooting that featured witnesses Jennifer Lopez and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, has pushed for a series of constitutional amendments aimed at making Belizean government more answerable to the people.

Barrow said that although race wasn't an overt factor during Belize's presidential campaign, his election was a signal of how far Belize has come.

"It allows us to boast without contradiction that we are truly an open society," he said. "But it never represented a sea change. No, we always comforted ourselves saying that (the election of a black prime minister) could have happened any time."

But while many in Belize agree an Obama presidency would be symbolically powerful, some wonder how much impact it will have on life in the Caribbean.

"While Belize and Caribbean people are Obama-ists, as they should be, there simply is not enough yet to indicate whether an Obama presidency will make any material difference in the foreign policy in the United States towards the Caribbean," wrote former Belizean Attorney General Godfrey Smith in a recent syndicated newspaper column.

Belizean analysts also doubt whether an Obama presidency would equal U.S. help on specific issues like a nasty border dispute with Guatemala, deportation of criminals or increased foreign aid.

"I wouldn't overstate things," Barrow said. "No matter who is president, the U.S. will follow its interests ././. and I don't know that the Caribbean can expect to become anything like a preoccupation of the U.S."

Standing near the waterfront in Belize City, Alberto Ramos peddles earrings and necklaces made of polished shells. Wearing a green, red and yellow Rastafarian hat with the word HOPE embroidered on the front, he ponders an Obama presidency.

"Everyone's saying that Obama is change, but change for what?" he wonders. "You could change 150 presidents, but if the polices don't help the development of poor people you're not changing anything."