In mid-October the Belize Commission: Initiative for Justice and Reparations (BCIJR), called on Belizeans of all oppressed backgrounds to gather at the Belmopan Convention Center for the Second Annual Popular Justice and Reparations Convention. Belizeans across racial and ethnic groups have constituted the only popular reparations initiative in the Caribbean in support of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) Reparations Commission created in 2013.
At this year’s convention, approximately 150 African Kriol, Garifuna, Mopan, Yucatec and Q’eqchi Mayan as well as East Indian peoples discussed the historical wrongs carried out against them by European colonial powers and what reparations means to and for their communities.
For two consecutive years, women, youth, elders, farmers, fisher folks, cultural workers, academics and union leaders among others have gathered to discuss an action plan for reparations. These distinct communities share interwoven histories of how Britain, France, Spain, and other colonial empires exploited, enslaved, raped and carried out genocide against their peoples. Not unlike the rest of the Caribbean, Belizeans’ ancestors were kidnapped, forced to migrate and exploited from a variety of places such as India, St. Vincent, the Venezuelan Orinoco Basin, the African continent as well as within Belize itself.
While the process to repair the damage that European colonialism has caused often seem endless, overwhelming and out of reach, Belize’s people led process serves as a unique organizing experience in the Caribbean, uniting so many different peoples.
Belizeans Fight for Justice and Reparations
The consequences of Europe’s criminal and unjust acts are evident throughout Caribbean societies today. “We continue to live with that damage to this day. Our health is below standard, poverty is widespread, our education system fails to prepare us as confident people who speak our distinct languages, are knowledgeable about our vibrant histories and the more than 500 years of suppression we have endured and are still enduring,” expressed the BCIJR.
This year’s gathering lasted one day, with delegates from all over the country taking advantage of each moment to move forward their strategies for reparations. People in attendance at the convention were asked to identify their ancestors and were charged with recovering histories about the damage done to their peoples during European colonization of the Americas as well as the invasions across Africa and Asia. Testimonies reflected on centuries’ long trauma, documenting how ancestors were kidnapped and endured treacherous voyages, forced labor exploitation and rape, and forever distanced from their homelands.
“Wat a ting dehn European governments did to us. They were the owners and traders of enslaved Africans. They were the ones who instructed that. That the indigenous communities be wiped out. They were the ones who made it a law. That our African ancestors can be enslaved. Wat a ting fi we ancestors gaan troo, Because dehn neva white,” recited Garifuna youth Alexis Casimiro from “Reparations Deh Ya” a poem by Myrna Manzanares and African Kriol delegate from the maroon community of Gales Point Manatee. The piece contributed to opening the day’s events and brought together the voices of women from Garifuna and African Kriol heritages unifying the African Diasporic experience.
Garifuna delegate Felix Miranda Jr. also led a collective prayer inviting ancestors to accompany and join their communities. Meanwhile, speeches from Belizean journalist Brother Nuri Muhammad and an address from Venezuelan ambassador to Belize Yoel Perez Marcano del Valle gave historical texture to the convention’s purpose.
While Venezuela is not a CARICOM member nation, Ambassador Perez spoke to his country’s revolutionary support for reparations. He referenced the rebellious legacies of independence leaders Simon Bolivar, Guaicaipauro and Negro Miguel in this multi-national alliance embracing the importance of remembering the ancestors. Ambassador Perez exclaimed, “They [colonial powers] continue to ask that we forget our ancestors. We must fight for our peoples’ dignity so our ancestors can finally rest in peace. We will never forget and we cannot forgive.”
The demand for reparations from European nations serves as a means toward national and transnational healing as well as a step in the direction toward self-determination. The campaign resonates with peoples across the country. However, for some they must constantly defend their right to reparations since the histories of their oppression are less unknown to Belizean society.
As one East Indian delegate voiced, “The whole indentured system was an injustice to our people. That system was a crime. Indians were brought to work in near slavery conditions. Many have said that East Indians are not deserving of reparations because we came of our free will. But we were lied to, kidnapped and forced to sign contracts. We lost our language, we lost our names.”
Not without its challenges, these communities are constantly at work to overcome colonially imposed racial and ethnic barriers. East Indian delegates have expressed how they came to see that African and Indigenous peoples have suffered similar oppressions and must work together to build a strong united front albeit a difficult process; while, representatives of the different Mayan peoples have reflected that the campaign for reparations has allowed them to work alongside with other Mayan peoples.
Along with the international presence of Venezuela, in special attendance were organizers from the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH in Spanish) whose participation tied together the internationalist vision of the movement for reparations.
The delegates represented Garifuna women and youth of Honduras and spoke of their recent recuperation of 1200 hectares of land in Vallecito, Colon where they are building an autonomous Garifuna community based on ancestral ways of life. They also described their ongoing struggle against neoliberal strategies implemented by the Honduran state with the goal of eradicating their communities. They ended their participation voicing their commitment to support reparations for Belizeans.
“When they [powers at be] realize that we have begun to organize for what is ours, they start to offer us the moon and the stars. But if the moon and the stars do not serve any purpose to us, if we have not asked for the moon and the stars, we are not obligated to accept them. We must fight for what we deserve,” conveyed a youth from Ofraneh, reinforcing the need for Belizeans and the rest of the Caribbean to remain resilient ahead of this struggle.
The campaign for justice has renewed the movement for reparations, especially during the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent. Reparations is a centuries’ long struggle that has taken on different forms and has made a variety of demands regionally throughout the Americas as well as internationally.
It would be an unforgivable show of disrespect not to mention that Haiti’s reparations movement more than a decade ago has served as an important milestone framing CARICOM’s current efforts. CARICOM states and the Belize Commission: Initiative for Justice and Reparations (BCIJR) alike regularly reference how the Haitian people courageously demanded $US21 billion in reparations from France in 2004. When Haiti became the first Black republic in the Western hemisphere, after a successful maroon led revolution, the French empire threatened Haiti with invasion for defeating slavery and cutting off France’s lifeline to undeserved wealth. France ultimately forced Haitians to pay restitution for the slave-owners’ losses. Over a century’s time, Haiti suffered major economic underdevelopment as they paid in bank loans, gold and lumber to the French.
At the time, then President Jean Bertrand Aristide made these demands internationally known and suffered a coup d’état orchestrated by France, the United States and Canada for daring to challenge empire.
For Caribbean nations, that history was never forgotten. The Haitian people started a reparations path that CARICOM countries have decided to follow challenging colonial empire and its contemporary pulse translating to more than financial restitution and debt relief.
Belizean’s Demands for Reparations
The six major areas identified by the CRC that are a direct result of European crimes that require reparatory action include: public health, education, cultural institutions, cultural deprivation, psychological trauma as well as scientific and technological “backwardness”.
As such, CARICOM’s demand for reparations encompasses a ten point action plan based on Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves’ “Roadmap for Reparations for Native Genocide and Slavery in the Caribbean.” The plan calls for: an indigenous peoples’ development program; cultural centers; repatriation plans; public health, knowledge and literacy programs; debt cancelation for all Caribbean nations; access to new technologies and rehabilitation programs for centuries’ of psychological, emotional and mental trauma. Belizean people’s visions fall in line with these guiding areas and principles for the region.
At the last annual gathering, Belizeans studied successful international reparations cases such as the Mau Mau in Kenya who suffered torture at the hands of the British and Japanese-US Americans who endured internment in the United States. In both of these cases, the oppressed received cash restitution along with a formal recognition and apology of the wrongs committed against their peoples.
At the Second Annual Popular Justice and Reparations Convention, Belizeans defined reparations in their own words and on their terms. British control and colonial residue have left deep wounds on Belizean society and its institutions. The representative of the African Kriol working group expressed, “We don’t have much here in Belize that we can survive on. Reparations is not a ‘feel-good’ fund. It is the reconstruction of our society. We have been 34 years dependent not independent.” In addition, African Kriol peoples called for land reform and the decolonization of their minds through culturally and historically relevant research and cross-cultural linguistic preservation.
Likewise, the Garifuna people’s working group advocated for the meaningful control and defense of the country’s natural resources. The Garifuna also specifically announced their hope for reparations for all Garifuna people for the genocide that occurred on Baliceaux. Baliceaux is a mountainous island the Garifuna people were banished to after refusing French and British efforts to enslave them in St. Vincent just before their great exodus to Central America. Countless ancestors died of disease and starvation on Baliceaux. Today, the Garifuna Diaspora is spread across Central America in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua as well as with a considerable population in the United States.
Young people also put forth critical proposals. Youth have significantly participated in the two conventions expressing innovative ideas to inform real structural change. In one case, young people said that they would like for everyone with 200 acres of land to have it taken away and redistributed, addressing centuries of land theft and privatization of resources.
Belizeans Demand Active Support from Government
BCIJR delegates also dedicated considerable discussion to addressing the Belizean government’s role in the drive for reparations. While the Belizean government has signed onto the CARICOM reparations initiative, Prime Minister Dean Barrow and his administration have yet to take the necessary steps toward institutionally supporting a national reparations effort. Since the passing of the Belizean reparations national commissioner Aldabert Tucker nearly two years ago, Barrow has yet to re-appoint someone to the position.
BCIJR scrutinized Barrow for his recent statements seemingly in allegiance with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s posturing on the issue. During Cameron’s official visit to Jamaica this month, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller publicly tabled the issue of reparations. After much relentless public questioning, Cameron declared that reparations is an issue of the past and that Britain’s current objectives are to look to the future focusing on trade agreements with the Caribbean.
Moreover, Cameron offered a £360 million dollar investment in the region with the caveat that £ 25 million be destined to build a prison that would presumably house Jamaicans and British-Jamaicans deported from the United Kingdom.
Barrow responded to the case saying, “I certainly do not take the view that while the issue is exercising and pre-occupying us that we should, in any way flaunt at the sort of effort that Prime Minister Cameron is now making. That can’t excuse the sins of history but you will forgive me if I am more anchored in the present and focused on what we can do to advance our local development agenda…”
At the BCJIR convention, space for political leadership was invited to respond to this issue directly. The BCIJR invited Barrow in their efforts to engage the state with grassroots concerns about the state’s apparent lack of support. However, no official from the government participated in the event. In the BCIJR 2015 resolution statement delegates expressed, “We ask that our government not put our short term interests ahead of our nation’s and our children’s long term development.”
As such, the BCIJR is pushing the government to join other Caribbean leaders such as the former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson “in informing the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom that his disrespectful attempt to brush away the psychological, cultural and economic trauma that Caribbean people have suffered because of the crimes of slavery and native genocide will not be ignored much less accepted by the people of the Caribbean including Belize.”
While Belizeans continue to make demands on their government to actively support the reparations cause, for the people one thing is certain: reparations are a demand and a right, not a suggestion or request. Whether the government moves on this issue or not, the people have committed to transforming society and forging an organized path toward reparations. Two global reparations summits are set for 2016 and 2017 in the Caribbean and Europe respectively.