The “Real” Belize

Belize, the perfect Caribbean vacation spot. Beautiful palm trees, glistening blue water, drinks on the beach… at least that’s what the tourists see. More than 250,000 tourists a year come to Belize, mostly on day stops from cruise ship tours. They often spend their time cave-tubing, zip lining, or swimming on one of the near islands or Belize City (near the coast).

However, after taking a missions trip to the inner parts of the country (hence the lack of blog posts), I’ve been forced to consider again my idea of the country. Behind the beautiful facade is a country plagued by debt, crime, poverty, and poor living conditions…

Driving: It’s easy to see the problems as you drive down a paved road that crosses much of the country, with no traffic signals or lane markings. Speed limits are rarely posted and never observed nor enforced. One teenager told me, “Technically, the driving age is 18 – but I’ve been driving since I’m 14. They really don’t care.” Car accidents are common occurrences, and there does not seem to be any such thing as a “traffic violation”.

Living Costs: Gas in the rural areas is approximately $11 BZ a gallon, which translates to approximately $5.50 US /gallon. After speaking with several missionaries in the area, I discovered that electricity and water costs are at least 20% higher than in the US. Air conditioning is a luxury, and the few houses that do have it ration it very carefully because of the high cost. Driving by hundreds of one-room run-down Belizean houses that are literally falling down, I was stunned to see the drastic difference between the perception of Belize and the reality. A higher cost of living coupled with lower average salaries makes it much more difficult for the average person to survive.

Money: As of March 2011, Belize’s total national debt (both external and domestic) was U.S. $1.0156 billion, an amount equivalent to approximately 75.3% of GDP. I spoke with a principal at a primary school, and her salary was equivalent to about $15,000 US/year. $15,000/year for the principal of the school. Imagine what the teachers make. In addition to that, the government takes 25% of income in taxes after the cutoff of $26,000 BZ ($13,000 US). I find it appalling that the government can take 25% in taxes from someone who would be considered poor in America – and yet, there is no observed benefit from these higher taxes. There are no road improvements, efficient police forces, or education benefits (education in Belize is only compulsory for primary school, and it’s not even free). The money just seems to vanish.

Government: The government of Belize is widely known for corruption. Although Belize is technically a British Commonwealth realm (quite apparent through the signs advertising the “United Kingdom’s investment in the future of Belize”), the small Central American country bears little resemblance to any part of the developed world. In Belizean newspapers, writers openly acknowledge the corruption and kickbacks plaguing the government. In my opinion, this is one of the most central problems. If the citizens do not trust the government but have no consistent effort to inform themselves and vote for someone else, the problems (as well as a general sense of discontent) will persist.

Religion: There’s a common saying in Belize – “Everyone has been ‘saved’ 10 times”. Indeed, Belize is a highly evangelized country. Although Belize is a melting pot of people groups ranging from Maya to Africans to Chinese to Mennonites, it seems almost everyone is aware of the Christian religion. In spite of this common awareness, the faith does not seem to be present in the everyday lives of many. Being “saved” simply means a missionary comes and a person raises their hand for salvation, but the choice doesn’t actually affect their lifestyle. They don’t have a personal relationship with God. The most effective missionaries develop supporting relationships, empowering and encouraging the local communities to make different choices and change their lives.

Crime: Belize has the 6th-highest homicide rate. When talking to teenagers, it was apparent that many of them face the same problems we do in the United States. Drug use is prevalent (although the penalties are harsher than in the US). Alcohol was also cited as a problem. The official drinking age is 18, but I was told that any store will sell it to you, regardless of your age, because the police don’t enforce any penalties on stores. Even the Police Minister is quoted in the paper as citing the public’s complete lack of confidence in the Belize police force.

There are certainly a lot of problems. Not that other countries don’t have them too. But I had multiple people ask me (after hearing I was a finance/economics major) if I had any suggestions on how to begin to improve the country. It’s hard to know where to start. I plan on doing some more research, but I’m curious to hear what you think. What would be some of your ideas for reforming the country? Should the US be involved at all? Should England become more involved? Let me know what you think!

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7 responses to “The “Real” Belize

  1. The problem we all have the government is the authority given to the governmental officials by the people. I think the next idea would be to pass a law that would give anyone no matter what their rank or position governmental for citizen the ability to point out corruption and be rewarded for it. I personally believe the only way to stop corruption is to give the power to the people from the bottom up.

  2. Great article and very well put. I am
    an expat with an economics background living in Belize. It is so corrupt that words cant even describe it.
    But in answer to the question of how to fix Belize.
    1) Transparency and accountability!
    so many projects that have been funded by expats or other ngos have had money disapper so fast its crazy.
    For example in my area a total of 200,000usd was donated to build parks.
    unfortunately the mayor awards the construction contract to a friend and ges what we got. the mayors home was remodeled and we got 2 concrete benches for the park. pretty expensive benches at 200,000usd. having sat in them i failed to find any hidden gold or diamonds for our $200,000!!!! But the mayors house remodelling is pretty nice.

    2) Audited financial statements and accountability.

    Every government Minister and his cronies are driving new land cruisers and hiluxs around.( for biz purposes of course).
    That probably explains why i run into them in Tulum and Playa and Melchor drinking and vacationing with family members. Of course the taxpayers and good people of Belize pay for that. Its amazing when u look at our budget for car expenses its astronomical.
    How about a driver log and having them parked in weekends when there is no work.

    3) Ministers should have no authority in land transactions.

    Many people have had properties expropriated by ministers and friends for personal use along with land being given away to ministers relatives. Just read latest news with Gapi Vega. and he doesnt even apoligize for it!!!
    Reform of the land titles office is a must as this is the gravy train of corruption in Belize.
    Just drop by the land office in Belmo and ask anyone in line. How is your land transaction going? lol I think we all know the answer to that.

    4) Accountability by police.

    Many business people have been shaken down by police or money outright stolen in traffic stops, home invasions, business inspections etc etc.

    5) Accountability and transparency at the polls.

    when i get paid $400.00 to vote for a political party who do think is going to win?
    the party with the most $$$ always wins.

    6) Elimination of neopotism.

    try and get a job in Belize. doesnt matter if you were educated at harvard and have 50 degrees and know the job. Believe me the ministers 16 year old nephew is getting the job.

    7)Follow through with the criminal code.

    start charging these aholes with fraud, extortion and bribery. we have the law against these things so lets enforce it.

    In Summary points 1 to 7 are all thr same.
    The biggest criminal organization in Belize is not the street gangs or cartels but GOVERNMENT!!
    Make them accountable and some transparency and Belize economy will be just fine.

    • Steve, I truly appreciate the suggestions. I’m very glad you stopped by my blog and hope you’ll enjoy some of the other articles as well.

      Best wishes while living in Belize, and I hope you’ll continue to work for change.

  3. Good question. Organizations like the IMF and World Bank have been spending lots of money and studying hard on these issues for seven decades, with nothing to show for it.

    Countries that have successfully developed have either had preexisting high levels of human capital (postwar Germany, Japan) or rallied around state-directed capitalism (Taiwan, Korea, PRC). Note these countries either have had strong Anglo/Protestant or Confucian foundations. Cultural values and work ethic matter.

    The problem is you can’t magically change a culture. Neither the US nor UK should go in thinking they can transform a country. However, they should use their soft power/diplomatic strings to advocate for rule of law and market liberalization. Then, investors around the world will make the best investment choices as opportunities arise.

    Everything would go a lot smoother if everyone could agree on this. But as you see with Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and company, countries sometimes have their own ideas.

    • Exactly. I appreciate the thoughts. For me, I think the priority would be in changing the government/police so that a) corruption is reduced, and b) the laws are actually enforced. When trust in the government is restored, people will be willing to invest and start businesses again.

      • Since Belize is a British colony, I do think UK should be more involved in developing the country.
        Also, it does make sense to combat corruption first, from the top down, so that the development in other sectors is faster. We face the same problem in development in Pakistan because our current government is not trusted by anyone. We can’t wait to rid of it in the elections next year.
        What that does do, however, is to cause more and more people to organize movements on a grassroots level for better education for the masses, and more access to healthcare and sanitation. And I think if we focus on education and corruption, the rest will fall into place in time. In Pakistan’s case, we also need to focus on energy/electricity.
        Sometimes it is very easy to get overwhelmed with all that needs to be done. But that feeling is paralyzing. It is much better to think of what change is within our means and focus on that.

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