‘No Tyrants Here Linger’: Understandings of Democracy in Modern Belize

  • ‘No Tyrants Here Linger’: Understandings of Democracy in Modern Belize

by Mark Nowottny



At a time when questions continue to be raised over the future of democratic transitions in the rest of Central America, the case of Belize offers a different perspective. From the 1950s, through self-government and then independence, this small Caribbean country on the Central American isthmus has proudly preserved an uninterrupted democratic heritage. With a tradition of free and fair elections, a politicised electorate, and (since 1984) alternating ruling parties, Belizean democracy is superficially strong. And yet, the last decade of People’s United Party (PUP) government has witnessed major and serious problems for Belize’s democracy: the exposure of acute corruption, political patronage continuing unabated, and increasing disillusionment of the electorate with the artificial polarisation created by both political parties. This work asks whether such democratic decay can be sufficiently explained and addressed by dominant understandings of democracy in which ‘procedure’ is paramount, and seeks to offer an alternative interpretation. The dissertation draws on research in Belize between June and July 2007, involving both archival research in Belmopan and a series of interviews with prominent individuals in civil society and politics.

The first chapter outlines the dominant view that Belize’s current malaise can be understood as the result of a failure to live up to Western democratic ideals and norms. Adopting a procedural and minimalist Schumpeterian definition of democracy, actors both in government and civil society have responded to perceived democratic decay by advocating political reform. The second chapter suggests that this perspective has its limitations, and therefore adopts a different methodological approach, drawing on the work of Laurence Whitehead on democratic transitions as drama (2002) and Harald Wydra on communist transitions in Eastern Europe (2007). This interpretive approach, thus far not applied to the Anglophone Caribbean, emphasises the need to see democracy as a creative “process of meaning formation” (Wydra 2007: 270) which occurs before and outside of the institutionalisation of formal procedural rules. Belizean democracy, in short, has its roots in the colonial oppression of the past. The process can only, however, be understood as a historically and culturally specific experience. It therefore requires the abandonment of the “normative model of full political democracy, generated outside the historical context” that has thus far remained “the axis of analysis” (Wydra 2007: 279). Accordingly, this second chapter then explores three potentially transformative experiences in Belizean history: (i) the labour movements of the 1930s, (ii) the radical politics of the 1960s and early 1970s, and (iii) independence in 1981. These experiences, despite having a limited immediate impact, left a powerful symbolic memory in the Belizean consciousness that the current interpretation of democracy fails to fully appreciate.

The third chapter, breaking from an experiential analysis, suggests rather more speculatively that despite the failure of these past movements there may be signs of an opportunity for a new democratic awakening in Belize. Central to this is a broadened understanding of civil society which places it at the very centre of democratic transitions. Ultimately, however, whether or not this latest opportunity to reject the myths propagated by a continuing neo-colonial system will be taken, should it arise, may depend on the willingness of Belizean civil society to rally around a different narrative of what constitutes democracy. Without this new narrative, it may be impossible for Belizean citizens to reject the intuitively appealing myth, sung about so often in the national anthem, that Belize is a “tranquil haven of democracy”, that “no tyrants [here] linger”, and to embrace instead the lived experience of democracy as it has historically existed in Belize.


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Keywords: party politics, democracy, policy, Belize, elections


Suggested APA Reference:  Nowottny, M. (2007). ‘No Tyrants Here Linger’: Understandings of Democracy in Modern Belize (Doctoral dissertation, Institute for the Study of the Americas).

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