A major controversy engulfed the small Central American country of Belize in early January 2010 after its foreign minister, Wilifred Erlington, described the border between his country and Guatemala as “artificial.” Enraged Belizean nationalists denounced Erlington as a “sell-out,” while opposition leaders demanded his resignation.
As the border between Belize-Guatemala mostly follows a straight line, “artificial” might seem an appropriate word. Erlington defended himself along similar lines: “The first meaning of the word artificial in the dictionary is manmade but nobody seems to want to even read the dictionary these days.” Outraged nationalists were not mollified. Opposition leader Mark Espat replied that “Belizeans are frustrated and tired of disloyal double speak. We are tired of splitting hairs and litigating matters that should be straight forward. The issue is very simple: our border is real, the Foreign Minister should not be saying that our borders are artificial, he has shown a clear lack of political maturity in not accepting that he misspoke…” (http://7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=15905)
The controversy involves far more than semantics. Erlington’s opponents fear that his statement could play into Guatemala’s hands as the two countries remain embroiled in a territorial dispute. The Government of Guatemala has been reluctant even to accept Belize’s existence, arguing that area was rightfully Guatemalan territory before it was wrested away by Britain to form the colony of British Honduras. Although Guatemala recognized Belizean independence in 1991 (ten years after the British left), it has continued to put forth territorial claims. Maps of Guatemala (see above) occasionally depict Belize as if it were part of Guatemalan (see above).
Belize objects not only to its neighbor’s claims, but also to the fact that Guatemalans continue to illegally cross over into the much wealthier much less densely populated country of Belize. Due in part to such migration, the demography of multi-ethnic country of Belize is being transformed. According to the 2000 census, the Afro-Belizean (or Creole) community now accounts for only one quarter of the population, whereas mestizos form almost half. Another 10 percent are Mayan Indians, while over 6 percent are Garifuna (a people of mostly African descent who speak a Native American language).
The most interesting aspect of Belizean demography, however, concerns contemporary birthrates; the ethnic group with the highest fertility rate appears to be the Euro-Belizeans. The White population of Belize is not large; one Wikipedia article puts it at a full zero (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_groups_in_Central_America). Contrary to this figure, Belize does have a small population of European extraction, including almost 10,000 Mennonite settlers. The Mennonite birthrate is reportedly 42.5 per thousand, as against 31 per thousand for the country as a whole. These religiously conservative farmers are classified as “Russian Mennonites,” even though their ancestors came originally from the Netherlands and they still speak a Low German dialect. The migration history of the Mennonites is a fascinating story in itself, put that is a topic for a later post.