When the elite abandon democracy – A Warning from Belize?

By Harold Young of Austin Peay State University

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As always, my first full day in Belize starts in my barber’s chair. The “trim” (haircut) is accompanied by spirited conversations with other barbers and clients. The topics run the gamut. Sports, weather, sex and, of course, domestic/international politics merge and intertwine at various junctures highlighted with grand gestures, fist bumping and laughter. In the middle of a particularly animated discussion about the latest corruption revelation, a young man walks in and starts grooming his beard in the mirror. Half under his breath he says, “Barrow di teef franh di poa” (Prime Minister Barrow is stealing from the poor).

This statement reflects the perception that he, a poor individual, is being acted upon or taken advantage of by the elite represented by the Prime Minister. The term “elite” is grounded in a long history of study in political science. It springs from the Greek notion of the “guardian” class of rulers or the best among us to govern. This minority forms the leadership in a society and is studied in political science as elite theory. Elite theory, therefore, can be defined as the perspective that a small minority of people are arguably best suited to handle public affairs and that this arrangement is inevitable in modern societies (Maloy). Lasswell and Lerner point out that understanding the role of the elite is indispensable to understanding politics and the processes by which we are governed. We should also note that the term “elite” includes those with political, economic/business, educational, law enforcement, faith/religious, national defense and bureaucratic power and/or influence.

The elite, therefore, should serve the source of its power and authority while working against democracy because it has faith in the rule of the few. It rejects the idea of rule by the people in general (Johari, p.104). Therefore, Maurice Duverger suggests that “government of the people and by the people must be replaced by another formula, a government of people by an elite sprung from the people” (p. 425).

At the expense of being an alarmist (or offending), I suggest that Belize is teetering on the precipice of being a failed state.

The Fund for Peace developed the Fragile States Index which includes twelve distinct conflict risk indicators. Based on these indicators, Belize rates 115th out 177 countries. Worsening from 2007 to 2017, we are one stage below “Warning” (but not in “Stable” category) and one step in front of Guatemala, which is in the Warning stage. Further, the Belizean elites are more factionalized according to Index declined from 5/10 in 2007 to 4.3/10 in 2017.

Source: The Fund for Peace

Further, the Global Policy Forum  defines a failed state as follows:

Failed states can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighboring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster. However, states fail not only because of internal factors. Foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse.

With all this in mind, Belize is not a failed state (yet) but the elements are present. Arguably, nothing is inevitable, but I suggest the current course is unsustainable without change, or the likely outcome will be at best be a contained intrastate conflict or, at the worst, adsorption by Guatemala (or the former followed by the latter).

That these scenarios are raised in disparate social groups is serious enough for concern. In Belize, the elite blames the poor for being poor. They view the poor as lazy and unambitious disregarding the inequities in society and institutional indifference and neglect that frames the lives of many of poor and mostly working strata of society. While I did see some people idle, most were working or hustling in some fashion. Second, on more than one occasion the use of government-sanctioned extrajudicial executions (a la the Philippines) is a viable crime-fighting alternative to keep them safe found support in elite discussions. They assume that they will be exempt from such a measure. Third, those in Belize’s upper echelons are overtly suspicious of any foreigners who are not Caucasian, or wealthy. Fourth, the wisdom of universal adult suffrage was questioned. The basis is that much of the voting public is stupid and/or corrupt. Fifth, it is widely believed the government needs to be more authoritative with a strong leader enforcing law and order at the expense of civil rights and freedoms. This is reminiscent of the “big man syndrome” which where one person or group exercises absolute control over others and ultimately leads to instability, further neopatrimonial corruption and increased disparities (Shawa 2012). Sixth, people do not feel safe unless walled in at home. The rise of private security is an indictment of public law and order institutions. The irony (if you want to call it that) is that those employed to secure are guarding the very ones who care little about their interests. Seventh, general disgust with politicians (part of the political elite) and blaming the very people who secure the interest of a portion of the elite. Eight, I was shocked at the resignation to the notion that independent Belize has failed. This seems to open the door to accepting dismemberment of the country within the realm of possibility (even acceptability).

The big question: how do all citizens (the voting public) ensure that the public’s interests are not ignored, and democracy is not undermined? There is no silver bullet. I humbly suggest that a part of the answer rests with the elite. What is expected of the elite, therefore, is that men and women who see beyond self-interest step forward in their respective spheres of interest and influence (not everyone can run for office) to champion the general welfare. Countries like Belize (and the U.S.) have no dearth of politicians but a shortage of statespersons, which means campaigning never transitions to governing after an election cycle. Policy development with consistent and equitable implementation must focus on the most good for the most people. None of this is to say that individuals or some civic groups do not do good works, but Belize is at the point where it must be more widespread, coordinated and focused to address the systemic problems of accountability, corruption, and disparities that drive societal problems. Though easier said than done of course, let us start with a public discourse of the real underlying issues and our failures to hold the political elite accountable. Does this account sound familiar?

P.S. At my last visit to the barber three weeks later, I was told that the young man was seriously injured in a shooting a few days earlier.

About the Author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he works as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law.