28 May 2013 — by Derrick Estrada
On June 19th 2009, the Prime Minister of Belize, the Hon. Dean Barrow, while addressing the proposed 7th amendment to the Belize constitution in the National Assembly uttered the following words:
“Because our laws recognize dual citizenship how then will you turn around, recognizing dual citizenship, providing for dual citizenship but impose a limitation on a dual citizen. It makes no sense at all and if a little bit of history and background are necessary, we didn’t always recognize dual citizenship. The recognition of dual citizenship came about as a consequence of the advance in legislation that was promoted by national hero Phillip Goldson. But we turn around and we leave intact in the constitution for all these years this impairment on the rights of the Belizean who have acquired a second nationality. I say therefore, Mr. Speaker, that it is utterly and completely contradictory. I also say it is inconsistent, and let me tell you why it is inconsistent, if you are a Belizean who has acquired second nationality you are disqualified from sitting in the National Assembly, but the Governor General, whose office is from a protocol point of view the highest office in the land, there is no such disqualification. The Governor General can be a Belizean who has acquired a second nationality. He is not barred from being Governor General and that is the highest office in the land. “
Recently a prominent Diaspora Belizean, Mrs. Muriel Laing-Arthurs, asked me to comment on the 7th amendment to the constitution proposed in 2009 that would have given full citizenship rights to Belizean-born natives who happen to possess dual nationality. Since I am not a card carrying member of any political party, my trajectory on this issue is not skewed by the inordinate local partisan rhetoric that has taken on a life of its own in Belize, but rather influenced by the realities we are facing as a people and nation and the fact that we have thus far failed to strategically maximize our human capital among our Belizean brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.
Therefore, on this particular issue I am in agreement with the Prime Minister and endorse the concept and spirit of the 7th amendment. However the contradictions and hypocrisy in our actual behavior/thinking surrounding the re-embracement of the Belizean Diaspora must fundamentally change if this initiative is to be successful.
Belize national hero, the Honorable Phillip Goldson, lost his physical eyesight in the later years of his life, but arguably he possessed one of the most clairvoyant visions we have ever produced in an indigenous leader. From the inception he saw the critical role Belizeans in the Diaspora can and should play in the overall national development of Belize, and understood that national allegiance and patriotism were not limited by one’s geographical location. Hence, his efforts over the many decades to engage, reconnect, claim and maximize the Belizean human capital of the Diaspora toward Belize national development have been one of the most remarkable progressive legacies of Phillip Goldson.
The issue of migration has been with the earliest human creatures as they began the trek out of Africa and eventually crossed the Bering Strait millennia ago into the Americas. These migrations were often times prompted by the need of share survival and in search of water, food and shelter. Other times by war, oppression, natural disasters and protection against the unrepentant natural elements.
As empires rose and fell over the millennia, human beings were captured and used as slaves to build these empires. In modern times much of Europe as we have known it was obliterated by two world wars that killed millions and displaced entire populations. During the revolutions that engulfed the Central American isthmus in the 70’s and 80’s, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, forced to flee, and many became refugees.
In Belize’s case large migration can be traced back to the building of the Panama Canal and World War II. After the 1931 and 1961 hurricanes that devastated the country and killed many people, Belizeans, via a designed policy, were granted refugee status and were allowed to migrate into the United States. Over the ensuing decades this migration pattern continued officially and unofficially, eventually creating a brain drain that has had an adverse impact on the nation’s long term development. Today thousands of these same Belizeans and their offspring have acquired various life-affirming skills and experience that have benefitted the host countries.
This perennial movement /exodus of masses of people has been a part of human nature as a result of curiosity, mobility, circumstance, oppression and conflict. To this end, the life and times we are now living in 2013 have therefore imposed upon us the necessity to reclaim this reservoir of natural resource.
A brilliant Diaspora Belizean sociologist who is an expert on migration, Dr. Jerome Straughan, raised the issue of the transforming definition of the modern nation state and its increasing mobility of people and how governments will have to implement policies that take these new dynamics into account. Accepting the reality that half of Belize’s population reside abroad, creating the bridge/mechanism to harness this human capital toward the development of the mother nation is not only logical, but is in keeping with the transforming definition of modern nation states and globalization. Given Belize’s geographic location, population size and history, isolationism has no place in the 21st century. There is no question that the nation’s future direction, national development and very survivability hinge on its ability to reclaim its Belizean Diaspora and incorporate the human capital into a long term strategy for maximum benefit.
The vulnerability of small, developing and peripheral economies like Belize’s is the burden of external debt. When a small country becomes totally consumed by debt, her natural resources then become collateral and held hostage to the creditor nations and institutions. Local governments are pressured into compromising the national patrimony, which includes putting the country’s vital industries, raw materials, and even the scandalous selling of passports, on the chopping block in a desperate bid to raise revenue. This global trend will not change anytime soon, but given the continued contraction of the metropolitan economies, Belize’s natural resources will remain a premium for exploitation.
In Belize there have been many noble causes taken up by various local and foreign finance advocacy groups and organizations relating to the physical environment, wildlife, social and cultural issues, but not a single organization dedicated to reconnecting and reclaiming the Belizean human capital from abroad. Over the years, Belize’s leading newspaper, the Amandala, has editorially supported the Hon. Phillip Goldson’a vision of proactively engaging the Belizean Diaspora and encouraging the cross-pollination of Belizeans at home and abroad, but this vision is yet to reverberate across all sectors of the society.
The most valuable natural resource our nation will ever produce is our people. Hence, any attempt at reclaiming this natural resource should be paramount on any platform for national reconstruction and development. It is now estimated that the number of Belizeans (first and second generation) residing abroad in North America, Europe and elsewhere is equal to half the three hundred thousand plus residents in the entire nation of Belize.
The arguments presented in 2009 for abolishing the discriminatory and apartheid era law dividing our people, and for providing the legal instrument allowing Belizeans who hold dual nationality access to full citizenship rights, participation and inclusion in elected public office, were and are a visionary, progressive policy option.
There is no excuse for not initiating and quantifying the various experiences in creating a skill bank of Belizean citizens abroad toward national inclusion. This should be relatively easy since globally the platforms already exist using tools such as Linkedln, Facebook, etc., where thousands of Belizeans are actively interacting and networking with each other. The Fortune 500 corporations and many countries already use these various platforms for global recruitment of talents, skills and experience. Since the rapid growth of the Internet, the competition for human creativity, talent and experience has indeed gone global.
The continued dragging of the feet and denial of thousands of Diaspora Belizean-born citizens from total participation in the development of their homeland is now viewed as conspiratorial, and even racist, by many. If a Belizean-born citizen is disqualified from full “citizenship rights” and his or her allegiance is questioned on the basis that they hold dual nationality, this is not only myopic but hypocritical, primitive thinking. The intense passion and interest which many Diaspora Belizeans have demonstrated regarding the ongoing Guatemalan claim and the proposed ICJ option is a clear reflection of the love and fraternal relationship they hold toward Belize. If the nation of Belize were to be militarily invaded/attacked, there is no question a vast segment of the able-bodied Belizeans with military and actual combat experience living abroad would volunteer to fight for their homeland.
What greater betrayal and damage has been done to the nation state of Belize over the past quarter century than by those who swear to defend and uphold the national patrimony and sovereignty of the state but hold more allegiance to a political entity effectively subordinating the state? Indeed, the actions, behavior and policies that have seen most of the nation’s arable land sold to foreign interests, vital industries usurped, selling of Belizean citizenship (passports), oil drilling concessions with ties to cronies and family members, and outright pillaging of the national treasury for personal gain – who is the real enemy of the Belizean state?
As I sat with one of Belize’s sages and historians recently, Imam Ismael Shabazz, and asked for his insight on the 7th amendment, Shabazz in his wisdom reminded me that the real substance of the 7th amendment should not only include the right to hold public office, but indeed “voting rights” of Belizean citizens in the Diaspora. This idea is not new. However, it has been resisted by the political elite, including many of the so-called progressive thinkers among us. The arguments made were that Belizeans living abroad would not be familiar with the issues on the ground and therefore they were uninformed and out of touch. This argument was made in the early 1970’s and perhaps had some validity forty years ago. However, the world has drastically changed over the past quarter century and the speed, access and advancement of technology and cyberspace have essentially obliterated this argument. Belizeans regularly interact with each other via social media, participate in call-in radio/TV talk shows, and have access to the various media outlets online.
Over 100 nations, large and small, allow their Diaspora the right to vote in local elections. These include Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Britain, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and France. Given the share size of the Belizean population living abroad and the decades-old impact of remittances to families back home, the vast majority of Diaspora Belizeans have maintained a solid relationship with their homeland. According to the World Bank remittance report, the remittances to Central America, which included Belize, in 2007 had reach a colossal US$ 12.1 billion. The report also stated that in some of these countries the remittances are equal to some 10% of the entire GDP. In the case of Belize, the report shows, for example, that Belizeans in the Diaspora in 2004/05 had made remittances estimated to be over US$ 160 million.
Whether the current administration (or future ones) will move swiftly and strategically to reclaim its citizens living abroad as an integral component of its national developmental platform, remains to be seen. But whether the political elite act or not, the Belizean people, along with progressive grassroots movements should take the lead. Belizeans abroad have been actively engaged in supporting grassroots organizations like the Belize Territorial Volunteers and BGYEA, among many other charitable efforts on the ground. This kind of fraternal collaboration and operational unity must be supported and encouraged between Belizeans at home and aboard for the sake of our self-preservation and survival.
It is my opinion that much of the resistance to the 7th amendment was essentially the result of the way in which it was crafted and presented. The original (amendment) was presented to the Belizean public in 2009, and tragically, in keeping with the typical ad hoc/ top down fashion in which policies are formulated in Belize, provided the ideal climate for speculation and misinformation. No real engagement with the community, from the inception of the idea stage to formulation and proper public education so the people could understand the purpose and benefit of the proposed change, was carried out.
Secondly, at no stage of this proposed 7th amendment fiasco was the constituency most affected, the (Diaspora Belizeans) themselves, invited to participate in the process. They were essentially left out of the actual discussion. Not only would it have made perfect sense to have included the Belizean Diaspora in the formulation of the policy proposal, but most importantly in the public and educational dialogue with their brothers and sisters in Belize.
As a consequence of the flawed approach, propaganda and partisan rhetoric took over and subsequently the merits and demerits of the actual amendment became completely lost in the process. The vitriol that ensued was reflective of the deep-seated residual effect of colonialism that still permeates our worldview. Talking points filtered via partisan bickering became the norm, instead of dialogue and constructive debate. So yet again, because of the choke hold of petty party politics on our perceptual apparatus, a shameful law that discriminates against thousands of Belizeans and relegates them to second class citizenship status in the place of their birth, remains intact and activated to this day.