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 colony (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!