By Valentino Shal
“The State is nothing other than the effect, the outline, the moving cross section of a perpetual process of State formation, or perpetual processes of State formation … The State is nothing other than the changing effect of a multiple regime of governmentalities” – Michel Foucault, French Philosopher.
The Caribbean Court of Justice will be hearing the Maya Land Rights case this month in Belize and the outcome is likely to break the Belizean narrative as we know it and radically alter how we define Belize as a nation-state. The reshaping that is likely to occur will be welcomed by those who believe that the State is malleable as it does not have an essence. However, the reshaping will cause concern and fear among those who fail to understand that the State is really the outcome of political and social processes.
There is a prevailing narrative which is that there is some essential form to Belize as a nation-state. Belize is what it is today because of the struggle against colonialism, where Belizeans have gained political independence and are now in control of their destiny.
This is underscored in the words of our National Anthem where it states that we drove back the invaders and now “this heritage hold”. This achievement then, as the narrative goes, is to be preserved whilst the government is the ultimate expression of the democratic will of the people. In other words, what we have inherited is good and should not be tampered with or reorganized.
If one doesn’t think about it too much, one could easily be convinced that Belize as a nation-state is a natural occurrence. It isn’t. A little scratch on the surface of this narrative, however, will reveal that the reality is more complex and that the State can certainly be understood in other ways. This narrative is a convenient way to encapsulate an idealized reality but it masks important historical processes, normative values and assumptions, realities and experiences of various actors including indigenous people who bore the brunt of European racism, forced religious conversion, decimation of their populations, theft of their lands and the destruction of their cultures.
Our understanding of the world today is that no one can really be on a civilizing mission. There are really no definite underlying structures or grand “truths” that shape and influence the condition of our society as we experience it.
The old hierarchies of thought that there are universal truths or essential truths to be discovered have virtually all been torn to shreds. This clearing and space has allowed us to develop new frontiers of understanding for us to decide what we believe to be important and what is not. It has always been this way but we never seem to have gotten to this realization until now. This realization has been empowering. It enables one to believe with strong conviction that we can be leaders, not just followers; we can also be designers and not just consumers of what we perceive as reality.
Have we ever stopped to ask, “What is a nation-state?” Is there a single way to define it? Is it the way we are understanding and experiencing it now? Why can’t it be differently defined?
We can mislead ourselves into thinking in binary ways; that the Belize we know today is “good” and anything that changes it is bad. You can see this reflected in the questions of those who doubt whether getting full recognition of Maya land rights would be good for Belize. We must allow ourselves the freedom to redefine what a “good Belize” is. To deny ourselves this opportunity to imagine is to enslave ourselves to the vestiges of colonialism; free from the chains of imperialism but not mentally and intellectually free.
While I do not wish to predict the outcome of the Maya land rights case, the direction it is heading is clear to me. Getting full legal recognition of Maya land rights will only be a first step in the decolonizing project. The exercise of self-determination will depend on those systems that are designed to see its application. There is much work to be done on the side of the Mayas for this to be a reality.
There are pressing social and economic challenges to address and these need urgent attention. An important issue for me is the type of economic system that will be put in place to support the aspirations of the people for growth and prosperity. As Mayas, we must also challenge ourselves with new ways of thinking and not misinterpret the affirmation of land rights as the infallibility of our culture. For the Government of Belize, there is a lot of work to do both in terms of understanding the emerging reality of what “Maya land rights” mean and what the Government must do to address it in practicality. The old systems in place both in thought and bureaucracy are unfit for what is about to come.
Nevertheless, getting full recognition of Maya land rights will certainly reshape Belize as we know it. This should be welcomed by all Belizeans because what it really does is demonstrate clearly that institutions that seem eternal or essential are only social constructs; power can really be challenged. Not only can institutions that seem eternal or essential be questioned, they can be shaped, and reshaped. It is also a clear demonstration that the framers of the future of whatever Belize will become are those who are willing to imagine a different reality and knowingly act to ensure it so occurs.
All Belizeans must be willing and able to reshape this heritage, not just hold it.
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