Big Game, Small Town Clientelism and Democracy in the Modern Politics of Belize (1954 to 2011)

Big Game, Small Town Clientelism and Democracy in the Modern Politics of Belize (1954 to 2011)

  • Big Game, Small Town Clientelism and Democracy in the Modern Politics of Belize (1954 to 2011)

by Dylan Gregory Vernon




Revisiting Clientelism and Democracy in a Commonwealth Caribbean State


Belize, a small multi-ethnic state of 313,000 people on the Caribbean coast of Central America, transitioned from British colony to independent democracy in September 1981. Although this continental location is highly relevant to its history and development, Belize’s process of decolonisation, Westminster parliamentary model of governance and much of its modern politics, designate it as decidedly more Commonwealth Caribbean than Latin American in political identity. Similar to other independent states of the Commonwealth Caribbean, Belize has exhibited a mixed and contradictory record of progress in consolidating aspects of formal democracy, on the one hand, and worrying challenges to substantive democracy, on the other. Using Belize as an illustrative and critical case in the Commonwealth Caribbean, this thesis revisits and critiques the academic debate on one of the least researched of these challenges: the expansion and deepening entrenchment of political clientelism.


As conceptualised for this study, political clientelism is defined as an informal and dynamic political exchange between individual or collective clients, who provide or promise political support, and patrons, who provide or promise a variety of targeted and divisible resources and favours. This thesis enquires not ‘if’ political clientelism exists in Belize, but how its level of prevalence and specific contextual manifestations affect its democracy and development over a specific period of time. This introductory chapter presents the specific research questions explored for Belize, reviews the concept of political clientelism and its relevant literature, defines relevant terms and summaries the analytical framework and research methodology employed.


The Research Questions


As part of the Commonwealth Caribbean, Belize belongs to a set of states that receives positive assessments and high rankings for democracy. Observations such as “no other region, in what has been called the Third World, has had, for so long so many liberal polities” and that “the Caribbean’s capacity to sustain liberal democratic politics is impressive” (Domínguez, 1993: 7) have been so often repeated as to be commonplace. These favourable assessments have come largely, but not exclusively, from the findings of quantitative studies that attempt to correlate aspects of formal democracy with specific independent variables. Commonwealth Caribbean democracy has been positively correlated to the level of economic development (e.g., Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens, 1992: 227), to former British colonial status, (e.g., Clague, Gleason, and Knack, 2001; Huntington, 1991), to small-state status (e.g., Sutton, 2001; Duncan and Woods, 2007) and to the presence of the Westminster parliamentary system (e.g., Hinds, 2008; Lijphart, 1999; Stepan and Skach, 1993). This narrative of flourishing democracy is further corroborated by the results of most multi-variable cross-national studies. One of the most cited and comprehensive of these, the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), has ranked the 12 independent states of the Commonwealth Caribbean region above all other developing world regions for all six of its aggregate indicators (voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption), with an average percentile rank of 67.1 per cent for 2008. This is significantly higher, for instance, than the 2008 scores for other developing regions. For example, Latin America ranked at 42.9 per cent and Sub-Saharan Africa at 30.1 per cent.


Belize’s claim to a share of this positive record of formal democracy is understandable. Since the constitutional establishment of Belize as an independent parliamentary democracy in 1981, there have been seven free and fair general elections, with high average voter turnout of 76.9 per cent, five peaceful alternations of power, and the establishment of an active civil society sector. Unlike other multi-ethnic states in the region, such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, Belize has avoided ethnically-divisive party politics. Additionally, an intensive political reform debate, led by civil society groups, has resulted in dozens of constitutional amendments and legislative initiatives with the objectives of expanding civil liberties, improving access to justice, enhancing formal democratic participation, and promoting transparency and accountability in government. Such governance achievements probably contributed to the assessment of the 2008 Commonwealth election observer team that “Belize enjoys a mature democracy and a well-functioning electoral process” (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2008: 16).


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How to Cite:


Vernon, D. G. (2013). Big game, small town: clientelism and democracy in the modern politics of Belize, 1954-2011. from

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