U.S. Department of State, April, 2000|
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Area: 22,923 sq. km. (8,867 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Massachusetts.
Nationality: Noun and adjective -- Belizean(s).
GDP (1999): $673.5 million.
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 people live 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 that 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 original 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 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 begun 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 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. Of the Senate's eight members, five are elected by the prime minister, two by the leader of the opposition, and one by the governor general on the advice of the Belize Advisory Council. The Senate is headed by a president who is a non-voting member appointed by the governing party.
Currently, the Belize Government is controlled by the People's United Party (PUP) which won 26 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives on August 27, 1998. The United Democratic Party (UDP) won the other three seats. Dean Barrow is the leader of the opposition. The UDP governed Belize from 1993-98; the PUP had governed from 1989 -93; 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 long-running 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.
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. The country is divided into six districts: Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo.
The Belize Defense Force (BDF), established in January 1973, consists of a light infantry force of regulars and reservists along with small air and maritime wings. The BDF, currently under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert Garcia, 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.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State -- Queen Elizabeth II
Ambassador to the United States and the OAS -- James Murphy
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 and recently has 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 in Belize City knows of some 185 U.S. companies that have operations in Belize, including MCI, Duke Energy International, Archer Daniels Midland, Texaco, and Esso. Tourism attracts the most foreign direct investment although significant U.S. investment also is found in the energy, telecommunications, and agriculture sectors.
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 its second development priority after agriculture. In 1999, tourist arrivals totaled 181,000 (more than 85,000 from the U.S.) and tourist receipts amounted to $108 million.
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://1997-2001.state.gov/about_state/business/com_guides/1999/wha/belize99.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 U.S. and the U.K. although draft is limited to a maximum of 10 feet in Belize City and 15 feet in southern ports. International air service is provided by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and TACA to gateways in Dallas, Houston, Miami, and San Salvador.
Several capital projects are either currently underway or are programmed to start in fiscal year 2000/2001. The largest of these which started in 1998 is a $14.7 million project to rehabilitate the Southern Highway. In addition this year close to $9.5 million will be invested in upgrading health centers and hospitals throughout Belize, and another $8.5 million has been allocated for the construction of a bypass road and two bridges in northern Belize. The government also plans to invest $50 million in building low-income houses.
Belize's economic performance is highly susceptible to external market changes. Although moderate growth has been achieved in recent years, the achievements are vulnerable to world commodity price fluctuations and continuation of preferential trading agreements, especially with the U.S. (cane sugar) and U.K. (bananas).
Belize continues to rely heavily on foreign trade with the United States as its number one trading partner. Total imports in 1999 totaled $370 million while total exports were only $183 million. In 1999, the U.S. accounted for 43% of Belize's total exports and provided 50% of all Belizean imports. Other major trading partners include the U.K., 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), a U.S. Government program 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. EU and U.K. preferences also have been vital for the expansion and prosperity of the sugar and banana industries.
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 of its economic assistance clauses. Neither Spain nor Guatemala ever exercised effective sovereignty over the area.
Negotiations proceeded 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 disagreements. Thus, 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 resumed on February 25, 2000, in Miami, Florida, but were suspended due to a border incident that occurred February 24, 2000. Further talks were held March 14, 2000, between both countries at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC, in the presence of the OAS Secretary General. The Guatemalan claim remains unresolved however.
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. Recent foreign policy initiatives include joining with the other Central American countries in signing the CONCAUSA agreement on regional sustainable development.
Belize is a member of CARICOM which was founded in 1973. In 1990, it became a member of the Organization of American States (OAS). As a member of CARICOM Belize strongly backed efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Council Resolution 940 designed to facilitate the departure of Haiti's de facto authorities from power. The country agreed to contribute military personnel to the Multinational Task Force which restored the democratically elected Government of Haiti in October 1994 and to the United Nations Mission in Haiti (UNMIH).
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 and also is 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 in a region successfully emerging from a prolonged period of civil strife, Belize benefits from the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Initiative.
International crime issues dominate the agenda of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Belize. The U.S. is working closely with the Government of Belize to fight illicit narcotic trafficking. In October 1996, the U.S. and Belize signed a stolen vehicle treaty and both governments seek to control the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S. through Belize.
The United States is the largest provider of economic assistance to Belize contributing $1.1 million in various bilateral economic and military aid programs to Belize in 1999. 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. In addition, during the past 34 years, almost 2,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Belize. The Peace Corps currently has 56 volunteers working in Belize. In Punta Gorda the International Bureau of Broadcasting/Voice of America (IBB/VOA) operates a medium-wave radio relay station which broadcasts to the neighboring countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The U.S. military has a diverse and growing assistance program in Belize which includes the planned construction of seven schools and four water wells in 2000. Private American investors who are 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 -- Carolyn Curiel
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: 011-501-2-77161 from the United States, or 77161 locally. Fax: 011-501-2-30802 Executive Office; 35321 Administrative Office; 71468 Economic/Commercial/Political Office; 35423 Consular Section. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org, Web Site address: http://www.usemb-belize.gov
Other useful contacts
Caribbean/Latin American Action
U.S. Department of Commerce
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov. Consular Affairs Tips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are on the internet and hard copies can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.
Passport information can be obtained by calling the National Passport Information Center's automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648). It also is available on the internet.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of Foreign Service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
Country Background Notes
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