For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Area: 22,966 sq. km. (8,867 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Massachusetts.
Cities: Capital--Belmopan (2000 pop. est. 8,305) Other cities and towns--Belize City (54,125), Corozal (8,075), Orange Walk (13,795), San Ignacio & Santa Elena (13,545), Dangriga (9.020), Punta Gorda (4,425), and San Pedro (4,965).
Terrain: Flat and swampy coastline, low mountains in interior.
Climate: Subtropical (dry and wet seasons). Hot and humid. Rainfall ranges from 60 inches in the north to 200 inches in the south annually.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Belizean(s).
Population (2003 est.): 266,440.
Annual growth rate (2003 est.): 2.44%.
Ethnic groups: Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Mayan.
Religions: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, other Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.
Languages: English (official), Creole, Spanish, Garifuna, Mayan.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Attendance--60%. Literacy--76%.
Health: (1998): Infant mortality rate—27.07/1,000. Life expectancy—67.4 years.
Work force (April 2001, 96,100): Services--50.8%. Agriculture, hunting, forestry, and fishing--27.2%. Industry and commerce--17.8%. Other--4.2%.
Type: Parliamentary democracy
Independence: September 21, 1981.
Constitution: September 21, 1981.
Branches: Executive--British monarch (head of state), represented by a governor general; prime minister (head of government, 5-year term). Legislative--bicameral National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, district magistrates.
Subdivisions: Six districts.
Political parties: People's United Party (PUP), United Democratic Party (UDP), National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR).
Suffrage: Universal adult.
GDP (2003): $1.28 billion.
Annual growth rate (2002): 4.4%; (2001): 4.6%.
Per capita income (2002): $3,237.
Avg. inflation rate (2002): 2.3%.
Natural resources: Arable land, timber, seafood, minerals.
Agriculture (12.7% of GDP): Products--sugar, citrus fruits and juices, bananas, mangoes, papayas, honey, corn, beans, rice, cattle.
Industry (14% of GDP): Types--clothing, fruit processing, beverages.
Tourism (22% of GDP): Tourist arrivals (2002)--199,493.
Trade: Exports (2002)--$294.5 million: cane sugar, clothing, citrus concentrate, lobster, fish, banana, and farmed shrimp. Major markets--U.S. (54.5%), U.K., CARICOM. Imports (2002)--$526.8 million: food, consumer goods, building materials, vehicles, machinery, petroleum products. Major suppliers--U.S. (60%), Mexico, U.K. Official exchange rate: Since 1976 Belizean banks have bought U.S. dollars at the rate of 2.0175 and sold them at 1.9825, making for an effective fixed rate of Belize $2=U.S. $1.
Belize is the most sparsely populated nation in Central America. It is larger than El Salvador and compares in size to the State of Massachusetts. Slightly more than half of the population lives in rural areas. About one-fourth live in Belize City, the principal port, commercial center, and former capital.
Most Belizeans are of multiracial descent. About 46.4% of the population is of mixed Mayan and European descent (Mestizo); 27.7% are of African and Afro-European (Creole) ancestry; about 10% are Mayan; and about 6.4% are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remainder, about 9.5%, includes European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and North American groups.
English, the official language, is spoken by virtually all except the refugees who arrived during the past decade. Spanish is the native tongue of about 50% of the people and is spoken as a second language by another 20%. The various Mayan groups still speak their indigenous languages, and an English Creole dialect (or "Kriol" in the new orthography), similar to the Creole dialects of the English-speaking Caribbean Islands, is spoken by most. The rate of functional literacy is 76%. About 60% of the population is Roman Catholic; the Anglican Church and other Protestant Christian groups account for most of the remaining 40%. Mennonite settlers number about 7,160.
The Mayan civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 1200. Several major archeological sites--notably Caracol, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich--reflect the advanced civilization and much denser population of that period. European contact began in 1502 when Christopher Columbus sailed along the coast. The first recorded European settlement was established by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years, more English settlements were established. This period also was marked by piracy, indiscriminate logging, and sporadic attacks by Indians and neighboring Spanish settlements.
Great Britain first sent an official representative to the area in the late 18th century, but Belize was not formally termed the "Colony of British Honduras" until 1840. It became a crown colony in 1862. Subsequently, several constitutional changes were enacted to expand representative government. Full internal self-government under a ministerial system was granted in January 1964. The official name of the territory was changed from British Honduras to Belize in June 1973, and full independence was granted on September 21, 1981.
Belize is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model and is a member of the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is head of state and is represented in the country by Governor General Dr. Colville N. Young, Sr., a Belizean and Belize's second governor general. The primary executive organ of government is the cabinet, led by a prime minister (head of government). Cabinet ministers are members of the majority political party in parliament and usually hold elected seats in the National Assembly concurrently with their cabinet positions.
The National Assembly consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The 29 members of the House are popularly elected to a maximum 5-year term. The governor general appoints the Senate's 12 members. Six are appointed in accordance with the advice of the prime minister, 3 with the advice of the leader of the opposition. The Belize Council of Churches and the Evangelical Association of Churches, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Belize Business Bureau, and the National Trade Union Congress and the Civil Society Steering Committee each advise the Governor General on the appointment of one senator each. The Senate is headed by a president, who is a nonvoting member appointed by the governing party.
Members of the independent judiciary are appointed. The judicial system includes local magistrates, the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeal. Cases may, under certain circumstances, be appealed to the Privy Council in London. However, in 2001 Belize joined with most members of the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) to work for the establishment of a "Caribbean Court of Justice," which is expected to come into being in the near future. The country is divided into six districts: Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo.
Currently, the Belize Government is controlled by the People's United Party (PUP), which was elected to a second consecutive term in office on March 5, 2003. The PUP won 22 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives, while the United Democratic Party (UDP) won the other seven seats. Dean Barrow is the leader of the opposition. The PUP has governed Belize from 1998 to the present; the UDP from 1993-98; the PUP from 1989-1993; and the UDP from 1984-89. Before 1984, the PUP had dominated the electoral scene for more than 30 years and was the party in power when Belize became independent in 1981.
Prime Minister Said Musa has an ambitious plan to encourage economic growth while furthering social-sector development. Belize traditionally maintains a deep interest in the environment and sustainable development. A lack of government resources seriously hampers these goals. On other fronts, the government is working to improve its law enforcement capabilities. A longstanding territorial dispute with Guatemala continues, although cooperation between the two countries has increased in recent years across a wide spectrum of common interests, including trade and environment. Seeing itself as a bridge, Belize is actively involved with the Caribbean nations of CARICOM, and also has taken steps to work more closely with its Central American neighbors as a member of SICA (Central American Integration System). On July 1, 2003 Belize assumed the presidency of SICA for a 6-month period.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Queen Elizabeth II
Governor General--Sir Colville N. Young, Sr.
Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Defense, and the Public Service--Said Musa
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Natural Resources, Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance--John Brice�o
Minister of Health and the Environment--Vildo Marin
Minister of Home Affairs and Investment--Ralph Fonseca
Minister of National Development--Assad Shoman
Minister of Tourism, Culture, and Enterprise--Mark Espat
Attorney General and Minister of Education and Culture, Youth and Sports--Francis Fonseca
Minister of Foreign Affairs and NEMO--Godfrey Smith
Minister of Works, Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance--Jose Coye
Minister of Housing and Transport--Cordel Hyde
Minister of Local Government and Labor--Marcial Mes
Minister of Agriculture--Servulo Baeza
Minister of Human Development--Sylvia Flores
Minister of Foreign Trade--Eamon Courtenay
Minister of Fisheries, Cooperatives, and Commerce and Industry--Mike Espat
Minister of Energy and Communications--Ainslie Leslie
Ambassador to the United States and the OAS--Lisa Shoman
Ambassador to the United Nations--Stewart Leslie
Belize maintains an embassy in the United States at 2535 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel: 202-332-9636; fax: 202-332-6888) and a consulate in Los Angeles. Belize travel information office in New York City: 800-624-0686.
Forestry was the only economic activity of any consequence in Belize until well into the 20th century when the supply of accessible timber began to dwindle. Cane sugar then became the principal export. Exports have recently been augmented by expanded production of citrus, bananas, seafood, and apparel. The country has about 809,000 hectares of arable land, only a small fraction of which is under cultivation. To curb land speculation, the government enacted legislation in 1973 that requires non-Belizeans to complete a development plan on land they purchase before obtaining title to plots of more than 10 acres of rural land or more than one-half acre of urban land.
Domestic industry is limited, constrained by relatively high-cost labor and energy and a small domestic market. The U.S. Embassy knows of some 185 U.S. companies which have operations in Belize, including Archer Daniels Midland, Texaco, and Esso. Tourism attracts the most foreign direct investment, although significant U.S. investment also is found in the energy and agriculture sectors. In addition, in March 2004, American investor Jeffery Prosser of Innovative Communications Corporation bought Belize Telecommunications Limited.
A combination of natural factors--climate, the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, numerous islands, excellent fishing, safe waters for boating, jungle wildlife, and Mayan ruins--support the thriving tourist industry. Development costs are high, but the Government of Belize has designated tourism as one of its major development priorities. In 2002, tourist arrivals totaled 199,493 (more than 50% from the United States).
Belize's investment policy is codified in the Belize Investment Guide, which sets out the development priorities for the country. A country commercial guide for Belize is available from the U.S. Embassy's Economic/Commercial section and on the Web at: http://usembassy.state.gov/belize/wwwhinvestingbelize.html
A major constraint on the economic development of Belize continues to be the scarcity of infrastructure investments. Although electricity, telephone, and water utilities are all relatively good, Belize has the most expensive electricity in the region, despite recent cuts in commercial and industrial rates. Large tracts of land, which would be suitable for development, are inaccessible due to lack of roads. Some roads, including sections of major highways, are subject to damage or closure during the rainy season. Ports in Belize City, Dangriga, and Big Creek handle regularly scheduled shipping from the United States and the United Kingdom, although draft is limited to a maximum of 10 feet in Belize City and 15 feet in southern ports. American Airlines, Continental Airlines, U.S. Air, and TACA provide international air service to gateways in Dallas, Houston, Miami, Charlotte, and San Salvador.
Several capital projects are either currently underway or were programmed to start in 2003. The largest of these is a $15 million program aimed at supplying rural areas with electricity, to be jointly implemented by the government and the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) company. In addition, the government will continue to implement an Inter-American Development Emergency Reconstruction Fund of $20 million aimed at restoring essential services such as health and education facilities and transportation networks to communities which were severely damaged by Hurricane Keith in late September-early October 2000. The government also will invest close to $4.2 million in projects targeted at poverty alleviation across Belize.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, through the Belize Agricultural Health Authority, continues to implement the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-funded Modernization of Agricultural Health Project. This $2.5 million project seeks to improve the competitiveness of Belize's agricultural products and thus enhance the ability of Belizean farmers and processors to maintain and expand the sale of their high-quality products to foreign markets.
The government will continue investing $9.5 million in its health sector reform program, as well as $9 million under the IDB-funded Land Management Project over the next 2 years. The Belizean Government will spend close to $1.4 million in improving access to archaeological sites in Belize, especially Caracol.
In addition, the Chalillo Dam Project on the Macal River, proposed by Prime Minister Musa in 1999, has been underway for several years. The project aims to provide Belize with an internal source of electricity.
Belize's economic performance is highly susceptible to external market changes. Although growth as high as 8.2% was achieved in 2000, this achievement is vulnerable to world commodity price fluctuations and continuation of preferential trading agreements, especially with the United States (cane sugar) and the United Kingdom (bananas).
Belize continues to rely heavily on foreign trade, with the United States as its number-one trading partner. Imports in 2002 totaled $526.8 million, while total exports were only $294.5 million. In 2002, the United States provided 60% of all Belizean imports and accounted for 54.5% of Belize's total exports. Other major trading partners include the United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) member states.
Belize aims to stimulate the growth of commercial agriculture through CARICOM. However, Belizean trade with the rest of the Caribbean is small compared to that with the United States and Europe. The country is a beneficiary of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) program, which forms part of the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act--signed into law by President Clinton on May 8, 2000--a comprehensive U.S. Government program designed to stimulate investment in Caribbean nations by providing duty-free access to the U.S. market for most Caribbean products. Significant U.S. private investments in citrus and shrimp farms have been made in Belize under CBI. U.S. trade preferences allowing for duty-free re-import of finished apparel cut from U.S. textiles have significantly expanded the apparel industry. European Union (EU) and U.K. preferences also have been vital for the expansion and prosperity of the sugar and banana industries.
The Belize Defense Force (BDF), established in January 1973, is comprised of a light infantry force of regulars and reservists along with small air and maritime wings. The BDF, currently under the command of Brigadier General Cedric Borland, assumed total defense responsibility from British Forces Belize (BFB) on January 1, 1994. The United Kingdom continues to maintain the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) to assist in the administration of the Belize Jungle School. The BDF receives military assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom.
Belize's principal external concern has been the dispute involving the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. This dispute originated in Imperial Spain's claim to all "New World" territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Nineteenth-century efforts to resolve the problems led to later differences over interpretation and implementation of an 1859 treaty intended to establish the boundaries between Guatemala and Belize, then named British Honduras. Guatemala contends that the 1859 treaty is void because the British failed to comply with all its economic assistance clauses. Neither Spain nor Guatemala ever exercised effective sovereignty over the area.
Negotiations have been underway for many years, including one period in the 1960s in which the U.S. Government sought unsuccessfully to mediate. A 1981 trilateral (Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom) "Heads of Agreement" was not implemented due to continued contentions. Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, with the territorial dispute unresolved. Significant negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1991, and diplomatic relations were established.
Negotiations between Belize and Guatemala were scheduled to resume on February 25, 2000, in Miami, Florida, but were suspended due to a February 24, 2000 border incident wherein a four-man Belize border patrol was taken into custody by a larger Guatemalan patrol. Ten days later the men were released, but the incident inflamed nationalistic passions on both sides. Further talks were held March 14, 2000, between the two countries at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, DC, with the OAS Secretary General present.
Eventually, on November 8, 2000 the two parties agreed to respect an "adjacency zone" extending one kilometer east and west from the border. Around this time, the Government of Guatemala insisted that the territorial claim was a legal one and that the only possibility for a resolution was to submit the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the Government of Belize felt that taking the case to the ICJ or to arbitration represented an unnecessary expense of time and money. So the Belizean Government proposed an alternate process, one under the auspices of the OAS. This process required that each country name a facilitator and that both sides present their case to the facilitators so that they could propose a just and durable solution. The facilitation process, which started in September 2000 with the appointment of the two facilitators at the OAS headquarters, concluded on September 16, 2002, when both facilitators submitted their recommendations for a solution to the Belize-Guatemala border dispute to the OAS, Belize, and Guatemala. The facilitators' proposals have not been submitted to referenda in either country. In August 2003, the Government of Guatemala rejected the facilitators' proposals, and so the Guatemalan claim remains unresolved.
In order to strengthen its potential for economic and political development, Belize has sought to build closer ties with the Spanish-speaking countries of Central America to complement its historical ties to the English-speaking Caribbean states. For instance, Belize has joined the other Central American countries in signing the Conjunta Centroamerica-USA (CONCAUSA) agreement on regional sustainable development, and on July 1, 2003 assumed the presidency of SICA (Central American Integration System) for a 6-month period. Belize is a member of CARICOM, which was founded in 1973. It became a member of the OAS in 1990.
The United States and Belize traditionally have had close and cordial relations. The United States is Belize's principal trading partner and major source of investment funds. It is also home to the largest Belizean community outside Belize, estimated to be 70,000 strong. Because Belize's economic growth and accompanying democratic political stability are important U.S. objectives, Belize benefits from the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative.
International crime issues dominate the agenda of bilateral relations between the United States and Belize. The United States is working closely with the Government of Belize to fight illicit narcotics trafficking, and both governments seek to control the flow of illegal migrants to the United States through Belize. Belize and the United States brought into force a Stolen Vehicle Treaty, an Extradition Treaty, and a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between 2001 and 2003.
The United States is the largest provider of economic assistance to Belize, contributing about $2.89 million in various bilateral economic and military aid programs to Belize in FY 2002. Of this amount, nearly $2.3 million was provided by the U.S. Military Liaison Office. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) closed its Belize office in August 1996 after a 13-year program during which USAID provided $110 million worth of development assistance to Belize. Belize still benefits from USAID regional programs. In addition, during the past 42 years, almost 2,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Belize. As of May 2004, the Peace Corps had 52 volunteers working in Belize. Until the end of 2002, Voice of America operated a medium-wave radio relay station in Punta Gorda that broadcast to the neighboring countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The U.S. military has a diverse and growing assistance program in Belize that included the construction of seven schools and four water wells by National Guard soldiers in Stann Creek District in 2000. Another "New Horizons" humanitarian project was conducted in southern Belize in 2003. Private North American investors, responsible for some $250 million total investment in Belize, continue to play a key role in Belize's economy, particularly in the tourism sector.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Russell F. Freeman
Deputy Chief of Mission--Lloyd W. Moss
Economic/Political Officer--Edgar L. Embrey
Management Officer--D. Trent Dabney
Military Liaison Officer--LTC David T. Treleaven
The U.S. Embassy is located in Belize City at the corner of Gabourel Lane and Hutson Street. The mailing address is P.O. Box 286, Belize City, Belize, Central America: tel: 011-501- 227-7161 from the United States or 227-7161 locally; fax: 011-501-223-0802 Executive Office; 223-5321 Administrative Office; 227-1468 Economic/Commercial/Political Office; 223-5423 Consular Section. E-mail address: email@example.com, Web site address: http://usembassy.state.gov/belize
Other useful contacts
Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Office of Latin American and the Caribbean
14th & Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Tel: 202-482-1658; 202-USA-TRADE