July 3, 2015
Most people who read this essay may already have strong opinions about the Santa Cruz incident, the characters involved, the subsequent aftermath, and all the various related issues. A lot has already been said about this incident as it seems to have dominated the radio airwaves and social media. I must admit that I’m feeling very intimated as I attempt to put my thoughts on paper because I’m not entirely sure that there is anything more that can be said and I am not a blogger. But, a new friend of mine, Aria Lightfoot, with whom I’ve already had some very spirited debate on this and other topics, has invited me to write on her blog. And, I decided that this might be a good opportunity for me to step back and do a bit of reflection. I have been accused, by Aria and by others, based on some comments that I’ve made, of romanticizing the Maya and being biased in their favor. Perhaps by forcing myself to reflect some more, I might be able to disabuse myself of any negative bias that I may have. I encourage all Belizeans to step back a bit and do the same. While it is important for us to speak our minds, it is equally, if not more important, to step back and reflect a bit.
First of all, this is a very unfortunate episode in Belize for all parties involved. In the heat of the moment, there seems to be no winners here at all. But, I am of the conviction that something positive can and must come out of this tragic set of circumstances and that Belize and Belizeans can get through this stronger and more united with a clearer sense of who we are as a nation and a people, and what it means to be a Belizean in all of our various multicultural and ethnic flavors.
One of the related issues that have been front and center in the discussion is that of racism and bigotry in Belize – the darker side of a multicultural and diverse society, if you will. The allegations made by Mr. Myles Rupert that he was unwelcomed in the village of Santa Cruz, and that as a result he was ultimately insulted, humiliated, and wrongfully detained by the Santa Cruz Maya village community and village police simply because he’s black, is very disturbing and sad. The video clip of a black man in handcuffs and tied with a rope is very jarring, especially at this time when we have been bombarded on social media with images of black people being abused by those in authority. The hash tag black lives matter message resonates not just with those of us living in America but with black people everywhere within the sphere of influence of America, especially with those who have access to the Internet. So, this unfortunate incident and that video clip that instantly went viral in the Belize social media circuit have sliced open a gaping wound in the Belizean social fabric, exposing the racial bigotry and ethnic tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of Belize’s fragile haven of tranquility for decades. We’ve all been aware of it, but never before, at least not to my recollection, has it polarized us in such a quick, dramatic and tangible manner.
So moving were the images of the video clip and the news of a black man allegedly humiliated and unlawfully detained by members of the Maya community that it compelled the Prime Minister of Belize and law enforcement to spring into action and come down like a hammer on the accused perpetrators of such a heinous act. News media outlets informed the public that the Prime Minister pronounced immediately that what the Mayan people did to Mr. Rupert was outrageous and that their disregard for the man’s human rights was unjustifiable.
Given the measured and tepid responses by the GOB to recent aggressions by Guatemala and incidents such as the grounding of a Guatemalan military vessel on Belize’s precious barrier reef, and the capture of a group of Belizean citizens by Guatemalan forces, the quick and forceful manner in which the Maya villagers were arrested, and then the public pronouncements by the Prime Minister that they were guilty even before a proper investigation or much less a court trial had been conducted was quite a shocking display of indignation toward the Maya by the Prime Minister. The fact that the Prime Minister himself is a black man is not easily overlooked in this situation; and one has to wonder whether the alleged actions of the Maya community touched a core nerve with the Prime Minister that is rooted in his black (not his Belizean) consciousness and identity.
At any rate, it has sparked a debate about race and bigotry in Belize that hasn’t fully dissipated and perhaps never will because, as I’ve said, the issue of racism and bigotry simmers beneath the surface of Belize’s tranquility.
Not surprisingly, the version of events offered up by Mr. Myles differs significantly in details compared to the version of the events offered by the Maya community. The story is well known at this point. The leaders of the Maya community assert that Mr. Myles was trespassing and living on Maya communal land to which he had no rights or permission, and that he behaved in a disruptive and threatening manner when asked to leave said land.
This brings us to another related issue that has been front and center in the discussion – the issue of Maya customary and communal land rights and the reluctance of the GOB to recognize and protect those rights. The Maya community have engaged in a decades-long struggle in order to gain legal recognition of their customary land rights; and they recently scored a massive victory when the Caribbean Court of Justice ruled in their favor and against the GOB affirming a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that indigenous Maya land tenure does exist in Toledo and also mandating the Government to take affirmative action to protect Maya rights.
This too has caused a rift in the Belizean social fabric and even among the Maya themselves. Some, myself included, are in favor and support of Maya customary land rights while others are strongly opposed and of the opinion that there ought not be any special rights conferred to the Maya and that such customary land rights are incompatible with a modern land management system based on private ownership of property. Here too, the Prime Minister felt it necessary to make a pronouncement on the matter and he stated that the consent judgment entered earlier this year by the Caribbean Court of Justice in the Maya Land Rights case did not supersede the Constitution and laws of Belize, nor did it transfer sovereignty over any part of national territory from Government to any particular ethnic group. The Prime Minister’s statements are not entirely inaccurate. The Maya communal land rights certainly did not transfer sovereignty to the Maya. But, this was never in question. Clearly the Prime Minster, being on the losing end of the ruling by the CCJ, is not very supportive of the Maya customary land rights despite the courts mandate for the GOB to take affirmative action to protect Maya rights. This then casts yet a different light on why the Prime Minister may have been moved to act in such a quick and forcefully manner against the members of the Maya community, and why the Maya may have felt, that given their ignored requests for assistance from the GOB in dealing with Mr. Myles, they had no choice but to act on their own.
This then brings us to the question of whether or not the Maya community had any authority whatsoever to act on their own and to detain Mr. Myles. According to the Prime Minister, they clearly do not. He stated that they needed an eviction order from the courts to enforce land rights and remove Mr. Myles. He further stated that no alcalde system, no cultural remit can supersede the laws of Belize. Here, the Prime Minister is speaking as a legal expert; and, while he presents a strong argument, the Maya leaders of Santa Cruz differ in opinion and are likely to argue their case in court. At this juncture, since they’ve been arrested, it seems they will have no choice but to do so.
The Alcalde system has existed in Belize since colonial days. Yet, it remains unfamiliar to many Belizeans who did not grow up in or near Maya villages that have used it as a means of administration. The Alcalde system permitted Mayan cultural practices to continue under colonial administration and has continued to function in much the same way even after Belize gained its independence. Indeed, it is one of the pillars upon which the Maya have been able to make their case for continuity with their ancestors and upon which their claim of customary land rights is partially based. O. Nigel Bolland in Colonialism and Resistance: Essays in Historical Sociology writes:
The British authorities attempted in the 1860s and 1870s to control the Maya directly, through a system of police and appointed alcaldes, and to confine them to rented land or reserves on Crown land. When this attempt proved impracticable, the colonial administration in the 1880s shifted its policy to one of indirect rule, through elected alcaldes, and largely abandoned the idea of granting reserves to the Indians.
The evolution of this Indian policy was, in part, influenced by general financial and humanitarian consideration then prevalent in the Colonial Office, but the tiny, poor settlement of Belize was not given much attention by the chief policy makers in London. More important in the evolution of this local policy were local considerations, namely the changes occurring in the colonial political economy and, in particular, the role of the Maya themselves.
The decline of the mahogany trade and the beginnings of plantation agriculture caused the colonists to change their view of the Maya, from a threat to the timber reserves to a potential labour force. But when the hopes for plantation agriculture faded, the colonial authorities were more inclined to leave the Maya to get on with their traditional agriculture. The role of the Maya in shaping British policy [and the shift toward indirect rule on a whole] is important, though hard to assess.
Maya customary land rights today, much as it has been in the past, are caught in the cross hairs of the local political economy and future development potential of Belize. There are powerful and high financed groups (logging companies, oil companies, hoteliers) that have interests in the lands that have traditionally been occupied by the Maya and both the history and the present day situation help to explain why the Maya are so protective of their communal lands and why the State has been so slow moving to protect those rights; and why the alcaldes and Maya activists are becoming more and more vocal in asserting their rights.
An article published in The Amandala dated June 30 references further statements made by the Prime Minister Dean Barrow as follows: “Barrow said that all Belizeans must see Government’s acceptance of the Maya’s special rights as a signal, advancement to achieving multiracial harmony in Belize, and a demonstration of respect for and pride in our Maya heritage and legacy. He said that the move to legislate these rights must move as quickly as possible with everyone embracing the process – a work which he said would be “epic in scope” and “problematic and tortuous in the extreme.” While these are nice sounding words, taken within the context of all that has been said and done over the past several decades and especially in the last few days surrounding the incident at Santa Cruz, it is difficult to accept the Prime Minister at his word and difficult to remain optimistic about the future of Belize. But, we must remain optimistic and must hold him and each other accountable.
This Santa Cruz incident has revealed some difficult truths about who we are as a nation and as a people. Our image as a tranquil haven of democracy has been tarnished and our multicultural harmony is sounding rather discordant these days. And it begs the question, are tranquility and multicultural harmony ideals that we value and are willing to work hard to protect? I hope and believe that the answer is yes. Based on some of the discussions that I have read, heard, and participated in, that hard work and introspection that is part and parcel of moving forward has already begun. Most reasonable sounding Belizeans whether their arguments lean more toward the defense of Mr. Myles or the defense of the Maya community acknowledge that there was wrongdoing on both sides and that we can do better as a people. I find hope and something quite optimistic in that tone. Even the jarring video clip of Mr. Myles in handcuff and tied with a rope, reveals the image of what appears to be a supportive Mayan wife or girlfriend in the background and a detained person being allowed to freely speak to the camera and state his case. This video clip, unlike the images of police brutality that we’ve been accustomed to viewing, upon further review, doesn’ t simply leave us numb; it makes us question exactly what is going on in the larger context not caught on tape. The debate that has been sparked by the video clip and tragic set of circumstances, although unnerving at first, appears to be a healthy one, or at least moving in that direction, as far as I can tell.
But, we can’t stop at the issues of racism and bigotry. It is important that all Belizeans educate themselves as much as possible about the broader issues of Maya customary land rights, the Alcalde system, the role of GOB in developing a framework or mechanism that protect the rights of Maya and the rights of all Belizeans. How can we as Belizeans claim all of the Maya history, heritage, and temples and reap the benefits that these bring to our nation in the form of significant tourism dollars that contribute toward economic growth and all of our well being, yet ignore the present day Maya struggle to assert their communal land rights? How can we honor the Maya history of resistance that is part of our Belizean identity as we resisted colonialism and struggled for our independence and as we sing in our national anthem, “For freedom comes tomorrow’s noon,” without considering the plea of our present day Mayan brothers and sisters for their rights to be respected and not overlooked, as the lands that they have traditionally occupied and administered get parceled off and allocated? Whose freedom comes tomorrow’s noon? Our own? Those of the multinational corporations? Or, those of a multicultural society insistent on forging its own unique way forward? We cannot simply allow ourselves to be easily manipulated like crabs in a barrel and pitted against each other. We need to educate ourselves, hold our leaders accountable and hold each other accountable.
Those who are interested in reflecting some more on this issue and finding out more about Maya communal land rights, the court cases and rulings, etc. can start by going through some of the information at the following web site: http://www.law2.arizona.edu/depts/iplp/outreach/mayaBelize.cfm.
I also recommend an article written by Filberto Penados titled, “Reflections on the recent developments in Toledo.” http://frombzwithhope.blogspot.com/2015/06/reflections-on-recent-developments-in.html