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Point and Counter Point: AFRICA COMES TO BELIZE – The expected visit of the President of Rwanda

Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2022. 10:09 pm CST.

Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ or the Institution he serves.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Though Belize has always struggled with its identity as to whether it is Afro-Caribbean or Meso-American, it has, especially since its independence in 1981, tried to publicly maintain one foot in each of these two civilizations viz. African and Mayan! For example, its first two Governor Generals were creole/African Belizeans (Dame Minita Gordon and Sir Coville Young). I am just now beginning to understand why one of the first things Johnny Briceno did when he became Prime Minister in 2020 was to appoint a Mayan Governor General, Dame Froyla Salam. To this sometimes awkward, sometimes inconvenient balance, Briceno has now made the bold decision to personally invite to Belize the first ever African Head of State, his Excellency Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda! My question is why this specific invite and why at this time?

One thesis that is circulating in Belmopan is that Kagame’s visit is more than just a home coming of sorts, for not only is Briceno trying to further consolidate his own political power within the PUP as the party approaches its mid-terms since returning to Belmopan after being in political exile for twelve (12) years by publicly moving closer to the political afro-centric powerhouse, and Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Cordel Hyde, but Prime Minister Briceno may also be trying to reconcile his own ethnic identity as the first ever ‘Black Belizean Prime Minister from Orange Walk who just happens to Speak, and looks, Spanish (Latino)’.

This idea that someone can be Black and Latino at the same time may still feel novel to some of us as we grapple with our own Belizean identities and may be the source of some national tensions that are preventing some of us from full integration into the Belizean society. But as a known PUP insider told me recently “…Johnny is Black! He is part of the African diaspora. He just speaks Spanish and looks mestizo/mulatto like. But he believes that the African continent influenced the world, and Johnny wants to use this opportunity of President Kagame’s visit to educate those around him about his Blackness and the importance of it as a national and regional political leader”.

The idea of being Black and Latino is becoming an even more salient dimension of the regional political landscape. For example, in 2022 Columbia elected its first Black Woman Vice President Francia Marquez. Francia is a single mother and former housekeeper and is Columbia’s first Black woman vice president after a historic vote. After all, we must remember that Latin America is the home of the largest Black population outside of Africa. Many people here are descendants of the more than 10 million Africans who were imprisoned and transported like freight to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade to places like Belize and Columbia; including from among those who lived at that place that is now the modern-day Rwanda. Hence, this visit by Kagame to Belize is a home-coming of sorts. But apart from having common African roots, in what other ways are these two men, Briceno and Kagame, similar? How are they different?

Paul Kagame is a Rwandan politician and former military officer. He is the fourth and current President of Rwanda, having taken office in 2000. Rwanda is an African country that gained global prominence in the last decade of the twentieth century for the genocide that occurred there. The Rwandan genocide, also known as the genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda, occurred between 7 April and 15 July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War. During this period of around 100 days members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa were killed by ‘armed militias’. At that time Kagame was a soldier.
In his own words: “I was second lieutenant, and my number was OP1460.3. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front attacked Rwanda on October 1, 1990, I was among the fighters. First I was with the 4th Battalion operating in Akagera National Park, until we were pushed back to Uganda and started guerrilla warfare”. It is with this backdrop that Kagame has been elected Head of State (President) of the Republic of Rwanda for three consecutive 7-year terms, 2003-present. He is widely respected in Africa and has served once as the Chairperson of the African Union. Though many consider Rwanda a good and safe place to live, Kagame’s rule is also considered by many as authoritarian and some human rights groups accuse him of political repression.

Despite these challenges the country seems to be doing fairly well. Rwanda’s major foreign exchange earners include mining, tourism, coffee and tea, and continued growth in these sectors has been critical for the economic growth and poverty reduction the country has been experiencing over the last seven years. It has become one of the number one places to live in Africa and has been given rave reviews by many global watchdog institutions. One such recent review by the World Bank describes Rwanda as: “…beautiful weather prevails, making the country a pleasant spot to call home. Locals are some of the friendliest, most open and welcoming people in Africa. And, although Rwanda has a tumultuous history, the situation today is much more stable, with expats reporting feeling extremely safe”.

The African continent influenced the world, and it is through visits like this one that Kagame is trying to continue that great tradition. For Prime Minister Briceno we should embrace that and really give tribute to it now because there is a lot of people who had to shed their blood and sacrifice their lives for us to be in this position and for this alone we should show President Paul Kagame some respect.

But even more importantly this may be the opportunity of a lifetime for us to reflect on the contributions of the Afro-Latinos of Belize to the history and sustainable development of this country, and region, and to understand why there is now a renewed emphasis on having African and Mayan History in our schools. And as Professor Joe German has reminded us “… many Latinos who identify as Black or of African decent have felt sidelined in the country’s broader discussion on ethnicity …In recent years, however, advocates and scholars are calling for the experience of Black Latinos to be given greater consideration”. I am therefore especially grateful to PM Briceno for inviting to Belize Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, as a stimulus to revive the national discourse on the Black Latinos of Belize.

Feel free to use the column below to challenge any or all of the issues raised in the piece above and let’s start the reflection on the contributions of the Black-Latinos to the sustainable development of Belize.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.


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