I took this picture during our last evening in Belize, near the light house in Belize City. This sign epitomized the feeling I got as we drove around Belize – a country that clearly has a problem of low self-esteem. As a social scientist, I couldn’t help but observe the class and race divides in the country. One evening while we were in San Ignacio we had a discussion with the proprietors of our jungle lodge. I asked them about the divides in the country and they noted that many of the hardest workers came from Guatemala, and the women favored these men as husbands. The Belize of San Pedro and Ambergris Caye was very different from that of the Cayo District or Belize City. Our hosts also noted that the people who lived in Belize City looked down on the people in rural areas, although it wasn’t apparent that the poverty in the rural areas was any worse than in Belize City. In fact, we found it much harder to navigate Belize City without being set upon by children or disabled people begging for change.
Although Belize has gang violence, it is nowhere near the scale of that in Guatemala or Honduras which is leading to the flow of children and families to the U.S. (see http://www.immigrationtexas.org/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors-and-refugees-from.html). A very small country, with a population of only ~325,000, and having only gotten independence from Great Britain in 1981, Belize seems to be struggling to develop a middle class. There are expats from the U.S. and other countries who buy land and even develop businesses that employ many people, but poverty seems to be a persistent problem.
I was struck by a story from one of our guides who wanted to come to the U.S., just as a tourist. He had to save up the $250 needed for the application form, and then hope that it would be approved which it was. Still he had to save up the money to actually make the trip, and he said it would be a couple of years before he would be able to make the trip, even though his visa had been approved.
When we visited the Belize Zoo, all of the signs were clearly written to encourage Belizeans to preserve and support their wildlife. Tourism has had a positive impact, for example, people realize they can make more money by helping breeders find iguanas for their preservation program rather than hunting them for food.
I plan to read more about the history of Belize, but given the current state of the country, the British had to have left the country in a very impoverished and under-developed state, and the country has had to work very hard to build an economy that seems to rely primarily on tourism. I felt very safe in Belize, and the people were very friendly and grateful for the tourists who came from the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. However, the border with Guatemala will be a concern as well as general economic development that can help the country build a middle class. I am no expert on Central America, but I feel like I learned a great deal from our trip to Belize and I hope to learn more as I observe from afar.