In 2008 Dean Barrow became the first black prime minister of Belize when his United Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Central American nation's latest general election. Belize, with its long Caribbean coastline, has been a geographic crossroads for the past few centuries, which has cultivated an ethnically diverse, multicultural society. Barrow was the first from its Creole community—as one of the mixed-race Belizean groups are known—to lead a ruling party and form a government. According to Marti Parham of Jet, Barrow asserted in his victory speech that the general election results proved "that Belize has reached a level where … a man can be judged on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin."
Barrow was born in Belize City on March 2, 1951, at a time when Belize was still known as British Honduras. Wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is the only English-speaking nation of Central America. In the pre-Columbian age, it was part of the immense Mayan empire, and early in the seventeenth century Europeans discovered that it contained a rich source of logwood, a small tree used to make dyes for wool. Belize's mahogany forests also became a valuable international commodity and enriched the English and Scottish entrepreneurs who had settled there and who imported slaves to serve as their labor force. Over the next few centuries the population grew increasingly diverse, with the offspring of blacks and the British known as Creole making up about 25 percent of the population. The Spanish were also a presence in the region, and Belizeans whose heritage includes both Spanish and indigenous Central American ancestors are called mestizo. Descendants of the Maya are another ethnic group, as are Garifuna and Garinagu, two groups descended from intermarriage between slaves and Carib Indians. In the twentieth century Belize also became a favored destination for emigrants from Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the Middle East. Barrow's predecessor as prime minister was Said Musa, who was born in Belize to Palestinian parents.
Barrow attended St. Michael's College, a private high school in Belize City, before entering the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados, which granted him a bachelor of law degree in 1973. Upon returning to Belize, he joined the law practice of his uncle and was made partner in 1977. By then Barrow had also earned a certificate of legal education from the Norman Manley Law School in Kingston, Jamaica, and in the late 1970s he began coursework at the University of Miami. In 1981 he earned his law degree from its School of Law, and a year later he was awarded a graduate degree in international relations by the university.
Elected to City Council
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981, but remained a constitutional monarchy. This means that the reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is technically the head of state in Belize and is represented by an appointed governor-general. The governor-general, in turn, selects members of the Senate, which is the upper house of the National Assembly. The lower house, called the House of Representatives, consists of lawmakers elected on one of two party tickets: the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the People's United Party (PUP).
Barrow entered politics when he was elected to the city council of Belize City in December of 1983 on the UDP ticket. A year later he won one of the twenty-eight seats in the House of Representatives when he was elected from the constituency of Queen's Square in Belize City. Manuel Esquivel, the leader of the UDP, became the prime minister and appointed Barrow to serve as the minister of foreign affairs and economic development, a job that he held until the UDP lost in the 1989 general elections. Barrow, however, kept his seat in the House that year and became deputy party leader in 1990. The UDP and Esquivel returned to power in the 1993 elections, and Barrow was named Belize's attorney general, minister of foreign affairs and national security, and deputy prime minister by Esquivel. He served in this capacity for five years, until the UDP was defeated in the 1998 elections, and Barrow was one of just three UDP members to retain a seat in the House, now with twenty-nine members. At this point Esquivel stepped down and Barrow was elected party leader. For the next decade he served as official leader of the opposition.
In 2005 Musa's PUP government became the target of mass protests in Belize City that turned violent. PUP lawmakers had proposed several tax hikes for the coming budget year, including a new 100 percent tax on the sale of rum. This came at a time when the PUP had been charged with corruption and mismanagement, which was believed to have brought on the looming financial crisis. Another factor in the unrest—episodes of which occurred in January and April and involved trade unions, university and high school students, and battalions of police in riot gear—was the pending sale of Belize Telemedia, the nation's telephone, Internet, and wireless service provider.
Led UDP to Victory
With a population of just 301,000, Belize is of a size that the links between its business and political elite seem to resemble the close-knit, small-town dramas in a television soap opera. For example, Dean Lindo, Barrow's uncle, was one of the founders of the UDP in the early 1970s and had usually challenged Musa for the same seat from Fort George, an electoral district in Belize City. Those contests were won or lost by margins as small as forty-six votes. When Barrow was in private practice, one of his main clients was Sir Michael Ashcroft, the controversial wealthy investor who owned the Belize Bank and a significant stake in Belize Telemedia. The son of a British civil servant in Belize in the colonial era, Ashcroft has ties to Belizean citizenship but earned much of his fortune in Britain, where he is thought to be one of the largest individual donors to Britain's Conservative (Tory) Party.
At a Glance …
Born Dean Oliver Barrow on March 2, 1951, in Belize City; children: four. Politics: United Democratic Party of Belize. Education: University of the West Indies, LLB, 1973; Norman Manley Law School, certificate of legal education, 1975; University of Miami School of Law, LLM, 1981, MA, international relations, 1982.
Career: Attorney in private practice, first with the firm of Dean Lindo and then as a senior partner of Barrow & Williams, after 1973; city council of Belize City, member, 1983; Belize House of Representatives, member, 1984—; minister of foreign affairs and economic development, 1984-89; attorney general, minister of foreign affairs and national security, and deputy prime minister, 1993-98; United Democratic Party, deputy leader, 1990, and leader, 1998; prime minister and finance minister of Belize, 2008—.
Addresses: Office—Office of the Prime Minister, New Administrative Building, Belmopan, Belize.
By early 2008 Belizean voters were ready to switch allegiances once again, so they chose the UDP after it promised to run a clean government. Barrow's party won twenty-five of the thirty-one seats in the House, which had been enlarged once again. Most of the international news reports about Belize's newest prime minister mentioned that he was not only the first black to lead the country but also that he was the father of Jamal Barrow—a onetime protégé of the New York hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs—who was serving a ten-year prison sentence for a 1999 nightclub shooting.
Jamal is the first of the prime minister's four children and was born in 1978 to a mother of Garifuna heritage whom Barrow never married. She left Belize with her son and settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the early 1980s. When he was in his early twenties, Jamal signed with Combs's Bad Boy label and was about to release his first record under the name "Shyne" in December of 1999 when he joined Combs's entourage—along with the singer-actor Jennifer Lopez, who was dating the record mogul at the time—at Club New York on West Forty-third Street. A foe of Combs's tossed cash in his face, and the insult prompted a melee in which witnesses said guns were drawn, with one aimed at Combs and Lopez. The only bullets fired came from Jamal's gun, however, and three people were injured. Combs and Lopez fled but were later stopped by police, who arrested Combs for weapons possession. He was tried on both that charge and for attempting to bribe a trial witness, but Jamal was the only person involved in the shooting to be convicted.
Amandala, January 25, 2008.
Economist, February 14, 2008, p. 44.
International Herald Tribune, February 9, 2008.
Jet, March 10, 2008.
New York Times, June 2, 2001, p. A11.