Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Boldly Colored Beginning

Life goes on in Belize the morning after the general election. On Euphrates Street, students are emptying out from school for lunch in their uniforms, though red flags wave through the streets as cars hired by the UDP drive by every once and a while.

At about one am last night when the last ballots were being rounded up, the television stations began to announce a resounding victory by the UDP over the incumbent PUP. Despite reports of election fraud by one incumbent and the presence of camera cell phones inside polling stations despite a recent ban, the election was peaceful.

I was a bit surprised to see that the signs of partisan politics that run deep into the core of Belizean life were so visible on the actual day of the election. The city donned its colors, from Collet and Lake Independence where Cordel Hyde's blue-clad election army swarmed Partridge Street, to Mesopotamia which bled the red signs and T-shirts of the UDP, the city donned its political colors. Voters walked with their political paraphanalia into the voting stations, with no restrictions. I wondered how we could be so lax about our standards protecting voting rights and voter independence. Later that evening, when a Belize City candidate won against an incumbent by only 16 votes, I began to understand the situation a little better.

I camped out at the television station for most of the evening, taking calls from news correspondents who were out reporting in the various districts. In the afternoon, a reporter asked Orange Walk candidate Gasper Vega why he thought voters were so much bolder than in past election years about flaunting their party colors. Vega's impression was that the voters were enthusiastic about the political process. The fact that voters were proud, rather than intimidated, about being identified with party, was an encouraging sign of democracy. Another take on the matter, I guess. But when a first-time voter goes to the polls afraid to dip her finger in the ink twice for fear that her staunch PUP parents will know that she had voted in favor of a referendum that could benefit the UDP, I have my doubts about how far the political party has come. It is another boldly-colored new beginning, a new start with a lot of excitement and almost as much fanfare.

Meanwhile, tragedies in Belize City. The night after the election, I visited a popular bar called Putt Putt, steps away from the Princess Hotel and its casino. Two hours after I left, gunshots broke out at Putt Putt, and a bartender there was killed. In an incident that shocked the nation, the killer then pursued their target through the streets of Belize City, killing two more victims, one of them a 17-year-old girl.

Yes, violence is everywhere, and everywhere politicians feed their people pipe dreams. But something seems seriously wrong if a government can't police young, small-time criminals who, disillusioned by the hopelessness around them, turn to means only slightly less rational than their leaders'.

Next time I'm back in Belize, I'm looking forward to seeing more Belizeans move past talk of politics and even talk about the formal education system to a real the conversation about the PRESENT conditions in which our young people - from Brooklyn to Belize City - are growing up.


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