Last Sunday afternoon, when my friend Wil Maheia shared with me his video clip and photos of Mr. Myles, a Creole Belizean man, handcuffed and tied in the Maya village of Santa Cruz, shortly after the incident occurred, I was stunned with utter disbelief, confusion and anger.
It was the same sinking feeling that haunts whenever I learn of the discriminatory and brutal harassment of disadvantaged, impoverished Black men in Belize City by U.S.-trained and funded Belizean security forces. The pointless, persistent and eager incarceration of Black men for minor non-violent offences and the consequent destruction of their families for generations also evoke within me such disgust even as it seems to have become an accepted, ministerial-complicit part of our racially color-coded postcolonial society. Such behaviour is also intertwined with history and continues to be a dominant practice in many countries.
That is why the image of Mr. Myles handcuffed and bound with rope was poignant, powerful and emotionally provocative. Despite the request by many for media persons to relate the context and facts that led to this image, none was forthcoming for several hours. Consequently, outside Santa Cruz, the general population around Belize had no other information except for hours of replay of Mr. Myles’ convincing narrative, thereby unearthing deep raw public emotions about discrimination, ethnicity and racism.
On the other hand, having also worked voluntarily with the Maya leadership for a number of years in support of their struggle for their indigenous land rights, I can affirm that making blanket statements about any race of people is itself a hallmark of discrimination. Over the years, I have had countless hours of positive interactions and richly informative discussions with the Maya leadership. This has brought about deeper appreciation of one another’s cultures and their struggles to maintain their traditions amidst the onslaught of an increasingly encroaching money-driven individualistic values that destroy self, culture, communities, and nature.
Such support was also nurtured by my personal experiences working with indigenous peoples of Suriname whose land rights struggles against their government are similar to the Mayas. Yes, there are positive and negative persons within all ethnicities. Unfortunately, people tend to highlight and remember mainly negative impacts over positive ones for years.
What Mr. Myles did to the Mayas and the response of the Mayas to Mr. Myles did not have to reach this stage if systems were in place and responsive to mediate their behaviour. Without sharing much details, Mr. Myle’s alleged that his being handcuffed and tied was as a reflection of racism by the Mayas. The Maya leaders had a different narrative. They alleged that Mr. Myles consistently disrespected their community by building his house within an archaeological site. According to the leaders, neither the police, BDF nor NICH responded to their request to assist in dealing with the alleged violation by Mr. Myles. Allegedly, when he threatened gun violence, the leaders were forced to defend themselves and subdue Myles in the way that they did.
By the time the Maya leadership shared their thoughtful narrative the following day about the series of events that led to their actions, it was too late. In these days of media soundbites, images have become more convincing than mere words. The emotional impact of an unforgiving public had taken root and quickly spread like toxic fumes across the social media, thereby threatening to erode the cautious public respect that they had earned after winning major court cases to protect their internationally recognized indigenous rights.
This incident evoked a catharsis of sorts – to unleash years of underlying pent up feelings about experiences with racism. However, we as a nation cannot remain there. We must interact and engage constructively to seek ways to nurture a healing process, to rebuild trust and community spirit. All Belizean groups were hurt and are evidently still hurt by racist experiences. The persistent marginalization and impoverishment of Black Creoles in Belize City, Garinagu and Mayas of southern Belize, for example, are not by coincidence and have deep historical roots not yet effectively addressed.
We the people have to be very careful that this concentrated emotionally divisive national response does not distract from the bigger picture of our national development. When reactive emotional responses take root, individually or collectively, genuine listening, critical thinking and the objective analysis of all angles of facts and information can get lost, and the truth blinded.
Ironically, it is the lack of understanding, awareness and goodwill, the lack of respect and connection with our common humanity and the rush to judgement of others that form the seeds of discrimination, sexism, and racism. These very qualities have prevented true nation building and have kept our nation torn by political, religious, social and ethnic divisiveness.
Through mediation, Mr. Myles and the Maya Leadership can still reconcile and resolve this issue peacefully. They ought not to allow this to drag on for long.
What this incident reveals is that there is still need for dialog towards genuine respect for all cultures in Belize. We haven’t yet begin to heal as a nation as political divisiveness continue to cloud many nation building issues. Our nation is yet to articulate a common vision and long term plan derived from the people. There is a paucity of leadership while political parties are engaged in narrow destructive ego games. Political discourse have remained destructive, immorally distorting of truth and bearing of false witness against others: – most embarrassingly poor examples for our upcoming generation.
While we try to resolve these and many other issues, we have to check our proverbial small change. We might be grossly distracted by the noise around to avoid looking at more pressing issues such as Belize’s burgeoning and unsustainable debt, unresolved unfounded Guatemalan claim, increasingly fractured democracy, discriminatory justice system, lack of accountability in the management of public finances and resources, the paucity of leadership to nurture a robust democracy, and so many other issues.
The need to heal our racial divide speaks to the failure of such institutions like our archaic churches that have remained uninspiring in their hollowed sepulchre of increasingly alienating European traditions and deities. It was their role to nurture peace, and to inspire love and community, respect and the foundations that fuel the human spirit through these challenges. They cannot even attract the youths.
Our education system also has not effectively prepared our youths to engage in critical national development issues either. Many still graduate without the awareness of Belize’s history, our Constitution nor understand how we are governed. As a result, many are rendered emotionally vulnerable to whims and fancies of slick politicians who can easily sway their decisions. A more dynamic education could have also nurtured more cross cultural experiential learning opportunities for it is the lack of such in depth understanding that have a number of leaders (hardly exposed to the lives and culture of others) ingrained in a condescending discriminatory ego-filled behaviour against others who they view as lesser beings.
It is the gross lack of understanding about indigenous rights, as well as the rights of Afro-descendant people nationally and internationally, including its historical roots and objectives that is also causing a rift in the nation. There is need for a serious discussion about this, but people must take the initiative to also do their own research about our common oppressive histories and current trends.
We cannot continue to fan discrimination against each other as Belizeans. Rather we need strategies and actions for bridging gaps, for healing and for appreciating one another. The intent to continue to divide and conquer us as a people is from a much bigger source. As Belizeans squabble, there are international interests for continuing to own more of our land and resources while we prevent our own fellow Belizeans from living as they wish. When hundreds of thousands of acres of Belizean land are granted to foreign entities in concessions or for ownership, for example, no one seems to mind. Certainly those blocks of foreign-born owned lands are totally out of bounds for any Belizean.
In this global play of huge stakes, if we as Belizeans continue to fan the seeds of division and continue to assault our own fellow Belizeans, we shall perish together. As the saying goes, “It’s not about the noise around the market, check your change.” Check? Dividing Belizeans against one another is a game that the colonizers played well to achieve their selfish objectives.
There are big people who feel hurt that the rights of the Mayas are constitutionally and internationally recognized and affirmed. They have their greedy interests. As they seek to continue to undermine plans for indigenous management of resources, they seek to set up native Belizeans to fight against each other. While they seek to hoodwink us, others are working to dominate and play “footsie” with our natural resources, our economics, our public finances, our governance and eventually all of us. Those who speak out, they want to hush.
Just check around your towns and cities, for example. Who owns most of the resources? Who are becoming richer? Who are becoming poorer? We have to rise above the jealousy, the deceit, the alienation of one group against the other and see the big picture of what is happening to our nation. Let’s stop the quarrel and channel our energies resolving the bigger picture. Let’s heal and unite, all of us. The power is in our hands. We the people. Belizeans. Respect!