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The Acting Ambassador : Former UCLA Basketball Player Nigel Miguel's Latest Role Is to Promote His Native Land of Belize

February 11, 1995|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Belize isn't the smallest country in the world, but it's one of the smallest.

Nor is it the most obscure place in the Caribbean, although it is in the race for that, too.

Since the last pirate sailed away more than a century ago, what Belize has needed most is an ambassador, a knowledgeable emissary, to tell American tourists and businessmen what they're missing.

This year, they got one.

Meet Ambassador Nigel Miguel.

The former UCLA basketball player has accepted the challenge to make two things better in the country where he was born 30 years ago: its business relations with the United States and its teen-age community.

"As usual, a lot of the kids were barefoot when they showed up for our basketball camp this year," Miguel said recently when he returned to Inglewood from Belize, where he had been sworn in by Deputy Prime Minister Dean Barrow as the country's first goodwill ambassador to the United States.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, lies on the east coast of Central America, just south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. About five hours' flying time from Los Angeles, its population of 207,000 speaks English.

And it has this mandate for Miguel:

--Promote more jobs for the young people of Belize.

--Interest more U.S. companies in establishing branch offices or franchises in Belize.

The goals are related.

"The best way to get more jobs is with more businesses," said Miguel, whose family came to the United States when he was 6. "And the opportunity is there for all kinds of businesses: shoe companies, computers, clothes manufacturers, everything.

"Belize is wide open today for entrepreneurs--and they'll find that our prices are comparable with Taiwan or wherever. People just don't know about us, but if you come and see for yourself you'll be glad you did."

Miguel, a political science major who graduated from UCLA in 1985, began an acting career while in Westwood, something he has since pursued in movies, television dramas and commercials.

He's a second-generation Bruin. A quarter-century ago, his father, Edward, left a good job as an engineer with Radio Belize to accept a UCLA scholarship.

At 16, Edward Miguel had been a world-class cyclist, national champion of Belize. Today, he is a computer lab executive.

At the Belize consulate in Hollywood, the consul general, Pearl A. Warren, said 70,000 of her countrymen and women have settled in the United States in recent decades, half of them in Southern California.

"But we all maintain close ties to (Belize)," she said. "Many go back and forth every year, some every month."

They're here for the economic advantages, but most, apparently, would choose Belize if the financial opportunities were equal.

"I'm so glad he (Miguel) accepted (the position)," Warren said. "We're in dire need of a role model for our young men, and he'll fill that role."

Miguel, who travels to Belize several times a year, spends every August in his native land, running children's sports camps with the help of such NBA players and coaches as Marques Johnson, Pooh Richardson and Walt Hazzard.

Now a U.S. citizen, Miguel said he intends to maintain his ties to Belize. For one thing, his is an old Belize family.

"My grandfather (Edward Miguel Sr.) was a contractor who built much of (Belize City)," Miguel said. "My other grandfather (Daniel Butler) was in real estate and restaurants. He was an astute businessman."

Miguel has picked up on family traditions and has invested in Los Angeles real estate and restaurants. He has a house in Pacoima and a condo in Inglewood.

He's also investing in Belize, where he owns buildings in downtown Belize City as well as a piece of one of the 100 Belize keys that spread out into the Caribbean.

"We're building an eco(logical) village on our key," Miguel said. "It's entirely in tune with Mother Earth: no electricity, no waste, nothing but solar energy and wind energy."

"Belize has a big coral reef--the biggest reef in the Western Hemisphere," Miguel said. "It's out in the water, extending the entire length of the country.

"The country was first settled by pirates because they knew how to run through the reef and nobody else did. They just sailed in, and the ships that were chasing them kept crashing into the reef."

Buried pirate gold, if any, was located--and spent--long ago, but the Belize seabed still is paved with gold coins, some Belizeans say.

"Pieces of eight keep turning up," Miguel said. "The lure of the coins is one of our tourist attractions.

"It's one of many. If you like water, our sea is warm and soothing, crystal clear, multicolored--aqua blue to deep blue. You can see 10 feet down.

"Inland, we have some wonderful Mayan ruins and so much else: a jaguar sanctuary, a baboon sanctuary, and the bird life and the animals you never see anywhere else."

All that, however, hasn't kept California from developing the largest Belizean colony outside Belize City.

But with a growing economy, more Belizeans will stay put, Miguel predicts, and he's working on that.

"With a growing economy, (Belize) is the Switzerland of Central America," he said.

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