By Jerome Straughan
In either late 2007 or early, just before the election, I wrote an article for the Amandala titled: “What Kind of State”. The article explored what kind of country Belize had become and addressed issues such as corruption and immigration. This is a section of the article that dealt with immigration, and I am now wondering how much things have changed since then. Feel free to comment on what I wrote.
We must look at the role of migration in helping to shape the kind of state Belize has become. This is in consideration of the fact that the country has experienced significant emigration and immigration, which have help to define Belize in the last five decades. Greater consideration is given to immigration as Belize continue to attract people to its shores. This immigration has brought up questions of national identity and regional integration. Besides the “immigration hustling” that took place, significant immigration has also highlighted the government’s lack of a coherent immigration policy, although minister Fonseca acknowledge the immigration situation in Belize. There is a political aspect of this immigration, in relation to issues of sovereignty, citizenship, and voting.
The arrival of a significant number of Central Americans in Belize during the 1980s corresponded with Belizean independence, and a few years later the economic liberalization of the country. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees played a significant role in resettling thousands of these Central American economic migrants (some legitimate refugees), providing them with aid and assistance. With the acquiescence of the Belizean government (perhaps grateful of the role the UN had played in the road to independence) these immigrants experienced a most favorable context of reception. While they face some hostility from Black and other Belizeans, with the assistance of the UN and Belizean government, these immigrants were given land and provided with generous services. This contrasted with the reception most of their countrymen received in Mexico and other Central American countries. This resettlement eventually led to chain migration.
In some ways, immigration has had an impact on Belize because of the role of labor and capital in a global economy. It would have been foolhardy for economic interest in Belize, intent on maximizing profit, to not see this large immigrant labor pool as a cheaper and more compliant source of labor than the local population. (To be more controversial, we must also ask cultural questions about the work ethic of many native Belizeans.). Now a larger portion of the population of Belize, these immigrants entered one sector of the labor market after another,. In short, they became the labor force of choice in agriculture, construction, and other industries or businesses. These immigrants have not just changed the country economically.
As indicated, these immigrants changed the ethnic makeup of Belize. Their immigration led to a demographic shift in the country, which was captured in the 1990 census. “Belize now Belice” was the Amandala headline of 1991 that heralded this change in terms of the country becoming more Latin in terms of ethnicity and regional integration. As the Latin population continue to increase, Black Belizeans continue to be concerned about their decreasing numbers and are more aware of their minority status. However, while there are phenotypical similarities and cultural commonalities between Central American immigrants and native Mestizos (hence the ethnic lumping), there should be some concern on the part of the Mexican descendants of the “Caste War” that as an identifiable group they are also on their way to minority status (if disaggregated from a pan Mestizo population), if significant immigration from Central America continues.
These immigrants have also been playing a greater role in the politics of Belize. A quick and easy path to citizenship, via two amnesties (1985 & 1999), means that many are now citizens, or are in the process of becoming citizens. In turn, the “immigrant vote” is a logical part of any political equation. Some Belizeans have a lingering concern with the irredentist and/or 5th column aspect of Central American immigration (namely from Guatemala). A greater concern of many Belizeans is the immigrant vote being manipulated by politicians, who are adept at practicing the Latin American style of politics. Manipulating this vote is a logical extension to efforts at buying votes; something certain politicians have little qualms about doing.
Furthermore, these immigrant come with the political traditions of their home countries, and become voters without a memory of things past, where Belizean politics is concerned. And politicians know that some of these immigrant will feel obligated to politicians who “gave them” citizenship and/or a piece of land. Consequently, immigrants, if they become a voting block beholden to one party, will have some significance to the kind of state Belize has become. Of course, all this can backfire if native Belizeans feel a a sense of outrage about an “immigrant vote.”
In 1993 the alarm was raised about aliens voting in Belizeans elections, and a commission of inquiry dealt with this issue after a narrow UDP election victory. More recently, the newspaper Independent Reformer resurrected the immigrant vote issue. Recent citizenship ceremonies and questions about who is being naturalized, will keep the issue of the immigrant vote alive. With the electoral battle for Belize drawing near, I personally observed last year efforts by one blue campaign worker (at the registry) to get immigrants on the voter rolls. And anecdotally, in my conversation with a “die hard” PUP supporter a few months ago she spoke about the role she played assisting a PUP candidate in a Belize City constituency distribute plots of land to some Central Americans (former squatters) on the outskirts of her division. What I think this land distribution was all about was an effort to sway the electoral outcome of that division.
One of the Gulf States in the Middle East, Dubai is a part of the United Arab Emirates that has benefited from the oil wealth of the region. A part of this micro state, Dubai has become a center for trade, banking, and commerce in the region. A significant factor in Dubai’s economic growth and prosperity is its foreign labor force, which along with construction does a variety of jobs. As a result, in free wheeling Dubai foreigners are now a majority of the population. (There is also a large foreign labor force in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). However, most foreign workers in Dubai will never become permanent residents of the state, much less citizens, due to its immigration policy. This stands in contrast to the former Turkish Guest workers in Germany who’ were expected to eventually return home but many permanently settled in Germany.
While Belize has an immigration policy with a path to citizenship for foreign born residents, where a foreign labor force is concerned, Belize can come to resemble Dubai in terms of how foreign labor is being used, and who does what types of jobs. Of course this is contingent on how Belize is being developed, and the extent to which some natives might become incidental to this development. (I was told that even in the building of the new U.S. Embassy foreign labor was heavily used).
The situation in Belize where Central American immigrants are concerned also remind us of how land use is very much a factor in the kind of state Belize is becoming. Due to immigration, the population of Belize has significantly increased in the last three decades. However, the country still has a low population density, in comparison to its Central American neighbors and Caribbean cousins. As indicated, this goes back to the history of the country whereby a plantation economy (with a need for a large number of slaves) was not developed ,and the various schemes that brought in indentured laborers (from China and India) to work in sugar cane plantations were not too successful.
We also do not have to look too far back into history to see that during the cold war and the height of the Guatemala crisis the small population of Belize (around 100,000 at that time) was considered somewhat expendable when it came to the strategic interest of America and its Guatemala ally. And when Guatemala though seriously about invading Belize, it wanted to bring Salvador along in the invasion with a scheme to resettle the surplus population of both countries. (We need to be reminded that the football war between Salvador and Honduras was about land and migrants).
Today, there is a recognition that based on their premigration experiences Central Americans are coming to Belize with a greater awareness of the value of land. They are coming from overpopulated countries where most of the arable land is owned by a tiny elite. This has been made easier by a porous Belizean border which now seem to only marginally define the territory of Belize. A porous Belizean border also means that where the resources of Belize are concerned Xtae harvesters and others freely travel back an forth between Belize and Guatemala taking full advantage of all that Belize has to offer. Most important where this border is concerned, the constant encroachment of Guatemalans on Belizean land and diplomatic moves to create an adjacent zone seem to indicate a less than robust foreign policy that revives the Guatemala question where the territorial integrity and erosion of Belizean sovereignty is concerned .
Then there is the issue of the economic citizenship program, which was started by the PUP in the early 1980s. The succeeding UDP government continued the program through the late 1980s hopeful that it could take advantage of the British turnover of Hong Kong to mainland China (offering a second citizenship to those Chines apprehensive about mainland rule). But the Chinese from Hong Kong did not flock to the program as Chinese from the mainland and Taiwan. The program also attracted nationals from a wider range of countries, namely in the Middle East.
By the time the program ended it became a regular hustle for certain government officials and their cronies. (By this time Belize also became a full-fledge client of Taiwan). In the late 1990s, I remember reading an article in the Los Angeles Times about all the countries that were offering citizenship for a buck. Belize received prominent coverage in the article. Consequently, this selling of passports (residency and citizenship) diminished the value of Belizean citizenship and highlighted how some in the Belizean government did business.