Tropical the island breeze
All of nature wild and free
This is where I long to be
La isla bonita”
— From a 1987 Madonna song about Belize’s “beautiful island” San Pedro
Imagine spending a night in an airless shoebox.
I once spent a long, sleepless night — wishing all night I had some fresh Caribbean air to breathe — on the floor of a two-room clapboard house.
And it with no electricity.
It was like a night in a shoebox.
The house, inhabited by a hospitable Belizean couple and their four young children, was shut tight for the night to keep out the mosquitoes.
The family still lives in the house in the disease-prone community of San Mateo, a short walk from the white sands and clear Caribbean waters of Belize’s famously beautiful Ambergris Caye.
Ambergris is the island that in 1987 inspired a visitor named Madonna to write and record a hit song called “La Isla Bonita.” That’s Spanish for “the beautiful island.” (The Caye is also commonly known as San Pedro, the name of the island’s biggest town and tourist center.)
San Mateo is home to many of the housekeepers, laborers, dishwashers and landscapers who keep “the beautiful island” so beautiful as to make Ambergris Caye one of the world’s top tourist attractions.
It’s also unfit for human habitation.
That was obvious to me when I spent that memorable night in San Mateo with the two friends of mine, whom I’ll call Juan and Maria, and their four children. A fifth child of theirs, a girl, was 3 years old when she died of what authorities simply described as “infection.”
San Mateo is no place for old men or children or anyone else, really — and that’s now official.
Belize’s Red Cross Society and officials from Florida State University recently determined that “flooding caused by tropical storms and hurricanes, coupled with insufficient water and electric infrastructure, has resulted in increased risk of fire and spread of disease.”
According to a report in the online publication AmbergrisCaye.com, a team of those Belizean Red Cross and Florida State University officials surveyed San Mateo in June to determine what measures can be taken “to measure the water and sanitation situation” in the community.
Presumably the team will come up with measures to cut the obvious and longstanding risk to the health and well-being of the community’s people.
So when my friend Maria’s 3-year-old daughter died, Maria — who is quite poor and poorly educated, as so many Belizeans are — did what so many poor, poorly educated Belizeans try to do when their lives blow up from some kind of poverty-related bombshell: she literally tried to drink herself to death.
She drank even more than her husband Juan, a carpenter who supports his family and his elderly parents who live on Belize’s mainland. Juan told me that he drank so much that he rarely worked for more than a year during the couple’s long, dark night of the soul.
If not for the care and interventions of neighbors and friends from around the island, Maria and Juan told me, they might have lost their own lives, or lost another child to illness. It’s a wonder that the island’s Social Services agents didn’t remove the children from the home for neglect, which the agents threatened to do sometimes.
Belize’s boosters have advertised and promoted San Pedro as “L’isla Bonita” since the Madonna song was a hit in the eighties.
A song about San Mateo, and so many other parts of poverty-riddled Belize that are out of sight and out of mind, would no doubt be a sad or desperate psalm, perhaps something that starts out as Psalm 88 begins in its first two verses:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
The leading champion of the poor today, Pope Francis, said in a homily last year that the poor always end up being “the martyrs of corruption.”
Indeed, where there is the stench of poverty there is always going to be the stench of corruption — and that’s true of any and every country in the world where there is poverty, be it poverty in a Western country or a third world nation like Belize.
Mind you, anyone who has lived in Belize for so much as a month will tell you that so much of Belize’s “third world” status is due to the blatant corruption of its two political parties and their leaders. They steal from the public treasury by the hundreds of millions of dollars — and somehow no one ever gets so much as indicted, much less imprisoned.
An anonymous Belizean, who wrote a letter to the editor to AmbergrisCaye.com in response to its report about San Mateo being “at risk of fire and disease,” summed up the corruption of Belize in the following sentences, which I’ve edited slightly for clarity:
Please understand that I do not mean to sound discriminatory, but San Mateo should have NEVER existed. The area is in no form fit for anyone to be living. This is the direct result of politicians being hungry for power. They [give away] land to anyone in the exchange [for] a vote.
All of these people come [to San Mateo and other poverty-riddled neighborhoods on the island] with little to no resources and the only thing they are bringing to San Pedro is poverty. Something that had never been seen on the island. San Pedro is not a rich island, but [its] settlers worked very hard to make it a dream tourist destination.
The hungry politicians used this to their advantage by giving away “a piece of paradise” to anyone that would give them their vote.
But [San Mateo] is no paradise. What was once wetlands, the home of many aquatic species, is now slowly becoming a toxic dump site where people defecate straight into the water.
San Mateo is not fixable. It will always be wetland. The best thing that the government can do is [re-locate] all these people to a higher and solid area or send them back home to where they come from, because they will only get sick if they keep living in those conditions.
A Sanpedrano who is saddened at what La Isla Bonita has become!
The rich get richer, the powerful get more power, and then there’s what the poor and powerless get.