The Belizean Thing on the Roof

The thing I heard on the roof this morning isn’t out of a Robert E. Howard-penned Lovecraftian horror. It was a bird, a big bird, bouncing around a warm corrugated aluminum roof on a humid Beleizean morning. (Perhaps “Bird on a Hot Aluminum Roof” would be a better title?)

It’s interesting to see the college students Liza and I are with and their reactions to the nature around us. A coconut falls from a tree in the dark and one of them is insistent that there’s a large animal in the tree ready to attack. Leaves rustle in such a way to make you think there’s something lurking in the underbrush (not that there’s much of that where we’re staying). It’s partially culture shock, of course, but it’s an entirely different world for them (and me, no doubt) here. As we were talking at breakfast this morning, the wife of the doctor on this trip called it the “suburbs of the rain forest.” I think it’s an apropos statement.

The growth of the flora is not as dense as I had expected. Belize, intriguingly, seems to be logged beyond belief (the populated areas, that is). Clearly the Baymen’s logging swath from centuries ago is where the bulk of the population still lives. It’s been two days, and I can’t say I’ve seen that much old growth (even only being five or 10 miles from the border with Guatemala) except in and around Cahal Pech. Even that growth isn’t old, comparatively speaking, to the true rain forest. For such a small country, with such massive natural beauty, one can only wonder about what the state of the flora and fauna would be had the Baymen been a little less aggressive in their logging.

The state of the people themselves is another question. I am reluctant to use the word “poverty” because of the definition of it and “poor” in the second edition of the NOAD (for the record: that is my favorite reference book and the first place I look to for definitions). The definition of “poverty” is “the state of being extremely poor” and “poor” is “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Comparatively speaking, this is clearly a poor country when compared to others on the continent (though, compared to Haiti, especially after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, this is probably a very well to do place). However, one needs to look at the question of what is “normal in a society” and compare that within the society itself.

From what I’m seeing, at least in San Ignacio and from passing through a bit of Belize City and Belmopan, is clear poverty by US standards (though there might even been some regions of the Appalachians that are more poor than than these urban areas). To get to San Ignacio, we drove through some villages that are clearly at the same level of some areas of West Virginia I’ve driven through. I have yet to go into villages (I’ll do that tomorrow or the day after) but, comparatively speaking, we do not have this sort of poverty in the US.

It’s a question of the standard of poverty here, and how the rural and the urban here compare to one another. The state of the people here seems to be “at a standard considered comfortable or normal.” I’m sure there is jealousy towards the US, Canada, and probably even Mexico. We all (especially the US and Canada) give off an air of having an immense ability to basically throw away our money and flaunt it while we do so. Let’s be honest: I’m writing this on a laptop (a MacBook Air) that, bought new, probably costs well out of the reach of the average Belizean. I have doubts that computers themselves are in no more than 15% of households (and that even feels high to me, but I’ve spent precious little time in Belize City at this point). There is a clear dichotomy at play here.

However, the standard of living here, at least in this point of the trip, seems to be a true standard and not a massive sliding scale. The people are not straddling immense wealth and immense lack of wealth. For the most part, it looks as though these folks are lacking wealth. But is the lack of wealth “poverty?” Especially when comparing the people solely to their countrymen? I would argue it isn’t. The nation as a whole is impoverished, but I do not see that the people are (does that make sense?). The people expect this standard of living, they see it as normal, and, thus, the definition of “poverty” can’t be applied to the people as a people, solely to the nation and its economy. Normality for the population here seems to be focusing on handling what can be handled as best as it can be handled. The children are not running around in dirty clothes or naked, the adults all seem to be be actively working on things. This is not the typical developing nation we see Sally Strothers hocking to us after Craig Ferguson and the Sham-Wow commercials (at least not in the populated areas).

It’s clearly a country standing with one foot in each of the two worlds. They want to shake off their logging and slavery-ridden past, embrace their massive multi-cultural heritage, and take a long stride into a modern world. The students were able to talk with a woman named Cynthia Ellis yesterday, and listening to her statements show the precipice the Belizeans find themselves standing on. The next decade or so will see major changes, I think. I see three distinct possibilities.

The first possibility is this country could turn into another Haiti (elect or otherwise place into power a popular demagogue, a supposed man or woman of the people, fabricate a “common enemy,” stir) and the people, in their comparative poverty to the rest of the world, could embrace a destructive path if they are somehow convinced it is in their best interest. After all, that’s the formula Adolph Hitler and Robert Mugabe, amongst others, used, is it not? That’s definitely the formula that kept George W. Bush in power in 2004 in the US. Please keep in mind I am not meaning to come across as stating the Belizean government is, in any way, comparable to the governments of Hitler and Mugabe. I am attempting to illustrate the way a demagogue uses jealousy and fear to attain and retain power. Make no mistake, though: I am definitely tying George W. Bush and his administration’s political use of fear tactics directly to the practices of governments run by people like Hitler and Mugabe (I personally am of the belief Bush is a traitor to the US and should be tried for war crimes, but that is an entirely different topic for another day). Considering the comparative poverty and the presumed jealousy in this country, such a circumstance could happen (but, to be more than honest, this could happen in any country under the correct circumstances). Looking at the past stability of Belize as a nation, however, I suspect it will not.

One thing could undermine that stability, though. I’ve already heard mentions of various people in the government who are getting rich and shouldn’t be. We watched the drugs we were bringing in for the people in the villages be confiscated at the airport because there are new rules for bringing these things into the country (I personally think a bribe of $50 USD, which is $100 in Belizean currency, probably would have gotten the drugs through). There’s clearly a subculture of corruption beginning to make a marked appearance in governmental functions, and that corruption can destroy a society trying to improve itself. Those leaders who are responsible need to work to ensure that the corrupt and corruptible stay out of power here. If the government is eventually seen as a corrupt entity, that will destroy the people’s trust and allow for a demagogue. This country, as we’ve seen with Haiti, would not survive as any type of productive member of the international community.

The second possibility is nothing will change, or that change will be glacial. Ten years hence, we could return, and nothing would be different. It is a distinct possibility if the international community does not assist Belize in lifting itself up. I do not mean solely by monetary means, either, but also by actual assistance, teaching, and training. Watching the situation with the group of students Liza and I are working with down here shows me, clearly, that the aid groups based in country are utterly disorganized.

I’ve heard some Belizeans claim it’s their laid-back lifestyle, but being laid-back doesn’t preclude organization. One can be laid-back and still have a sense of process and procedure. This is the third year an undergraduate group from our university has come down here, and I was shocked by the amount of basic questions Liza had to ask, and keep asking, in order for this to come off correctly. Even as we’ve been here, I’ve heard one of the group leaders (essentially our “fixer,” to use some Anthony Bourdain terminology) state she didn’t know the students were supposed to speak in school settings (while her, I assume, boss has reinforced that, yes, this is going to happen). Then, last night, as the students were talking with the doctor, practicing taking blood pressure and poking each other in the fingers with glucometers (in order to test for diabetes), the fixer’s boss noted that they should do this sort of things with all of the groups. (He is, I should note, the same one who keeps making the “laid-back” statements… while supposedly responsible for upwards of nine international groups of doctors, nurses, and students at any given time.)

Aid groups from outside of a country need to be properly prepared and assisted by those in country in order to correctly address the needs of the people. I’m not saying they need to emulate American business practices. But a standard set of instructions for groups coming in to help? That would be excellent.

The third possibility is what I see as most likely. American corporate interests will soon realize how close to the American mainland this country is, that they speak English, that they take American currency at an easy exchange rate, their power comes out at 110 volts and uses the same receptacles we do, that Sally Strothers is unlikely to have a camera crew filming her next commercial here (at least, again, in the heavily populated areas), that American music flows out of the bars and American TV is all over the airwaves, and, last but not least, that the Belizeans are more than willing to make spaghetti and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for food squeamish student groups. Once those corporate interests see that (if they haven’t already), this country will be awash in more logos than Logorama or Blade Runner featured. The Las Vegas of the Caribbean along the barrier islands, with the areas further inland becoming vacation spots for middle- and upper-class Americans who have tired of Hawaii.

I think the Belizeans would welcome a massive amount of increased tourism by (relatively) wealthy Americans. But is a service economy what they really need to survive? A portion, yes, but I should hope they would balance it. If you think about it, in this situation, one big recession in the US could have massive, and irrecoverable, repercussions on this country (I’m sure the current one already has had an affect). The country could become service-based, tourist-centric, and completely collapse in the next financial meltdown, leaving it a rotting corpse of a country… with Sally Strothers filming her next commercial in San Ignacio.

It’s my hope the Belizeans are adept enough to control the American corporate interests from running roughshod all over them. Unfortunately, if the leaders of the aid groups can’t get their acts together as they deal with students groups, how are they going to stand up to McDonald’s and Wal-Mart?