Background Notes: Belize

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: May 15, 19905/15/90 Category: Country Data Region: Caribbean Country: Belize Subject: Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Belize


Area: 22,963 sq. km. (8,866 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Massachusetts. Cities: Capital-Belmopan (pop. 4,500). Other city- Belize City (60,000). Towns-Dangriga, Orange Walk, Corozal, Punta Gorda, San Ignacio, and Santa Elena. Terrain: Flat and swampy coastline, low mountains in interior. Climate: Hot and humid. People Nationality: Noun and adjective-Belizean(s). Population (1988 est.): 203,000. Annual growth rate: About 8% (due to high immigration rate). Ethnic groups: Creole, African, mestizo, Amerindian. Religions: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, other Protestant, Muslim, and Buddhist. Languages: English (official), Spanish, Mayan. Education: Years compulsory-9. Attendance-55%. Literacy-more than 80%. Health (1988): Infant mortality rate- 56/1,000. Life expectancy-60 years. Work force (58,000): Agriculture-30%. Industry and commerce-27%. Services-25%. Government-16%. Other-2%.
Type: Parliamentary. 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: 6 districts Political parties: People's United Party (PUP), United Democratic Party (UDP). Suffrage: Universal adult. Central government budget (1989-90): $71.8 million current expenditures, $45.2 million capital accounts. Defense (1989 est.): 2% GDP. Flag: Blue field with red stripes at top and bottom. Centered in the blue field is the national coat of arms consisting of two workers and symbols of agriculture, industry, and maritime trade on a white circular background.
GDP (1988 est. current prices): $247 million. Annual growth rate (1988): 7.6%. Per capita income: $1,220. Avg. inflation rate (1988): 5%. Natural resources: Arable land, timber, seafood. Agriculture (19% of GDP): Products-sugar, citrus fruits and juices, bananas, mangoes, papayas, honey, corn, beans, rice, cattle, and winter vegetables. Industry (15% of GDP): Types-clothing, beverages. Tourism (1988, 11% of GDP): Visitor arrivals 132,000. Trade (1989 est.): Exports-$100 million; sugar, clothing, citrus concentrate, lobster, fish, and bananas. Major markets-US, UK, CARICOM. Imports-$148.5 million: food, consumer goods, building materials, vehicles, machinery, petroleum products. Major suppliers-US, Mexico, UK. Official exchange rate: The Belize dollar is tied to the US dollar at a fixed rate of Belize $2=US$1. Economic aid received (grant and concessional loan): US aid (FY 1988)-$8.4 million. Aid from other countries and international agencies (1989)-$15.8 million.
Membership in International Organizations
UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Caribbean Community (CARICOM); Caribbean Development Bank (CDB); International Development Agency (IDA); International Finance Corporation (IFC); Commonwealth; Nonaligned Movement. Will join the OAS in 1990.


Belize is the most sparsely populated nation in Central America. Slightly more than half of the people live in six urban areas, primarily along the coast. About one-fourth live in Belize City, the former capital and principal port. Population has increased dramatically in the last few years from the inflow of Central American refugees-estimated at up to 30,000 in 1988- mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala, more than balancing the heavy emigration of the Creole population to North America. Most Belizeans are of multiracial descent. About 40%-45% are of African ancestry. More than 25% of the population is of mixed local Indian and European descent (mestizo). Another one-fifth is composed of Carib, Mayan, or other Amerindian ethnic groups. The remainder, about 10%, includes Europeans, East Indians, Chinese, and Lebanese. English, the official language, is spoken by virtually all except the most recently arrived refugees. Spanish is the native tongue of about 50% of the people and is spoken as a second language by another 20%. The various Indian groups still speak their original languages, and an English Creole dialect, similar to the Creole dialects of the English-speaking Caribbean islands, is spoken by many. The rate of functional literacy is more than 80%. About half the people are Roman Catholic; the Anglican Church and Protestant Christian groups account for most of the other half. Mennonite settlers number about 3,000.


The Mayan civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 1000. Several major archeological sites, notably Caracol, Lamanai, Labaantun, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich, reflect the advanced civilization and much denser population of that period. European contact began in 1502 when 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 was also 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 Dame Dr. Minita E. Gordon, a Belizean. 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 28 members of the House are popularly elected to a maximum 5-year term. Of the Senate's eight members, five are selected by the prime minister, two by the leader of the opposition, and one by the governor general. The Belize government is controlled by the People's United Party (PUP), which won 15 of the 28 seats in the House of Representatives on September 4, 1989. The United Democratic Party (UDP) won the other 13 seats. The UDP had governed Belize from December 1984 until September 1989. Before 1984, the PUP had dominated the electoral scene for over 30 years. Prime Minister George Price was Premier from 1961 until the granting of independence in 1981 when he became Prime Minister, a post he held until the 1984 election and regained in 1989. 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, Cayo, Belize, Stann Creek, and Toledo.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State-Queen Elizabeth II Governor General-Dame Dr. Minita E. Gordon Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Minister of Home Affairs and Defence, and Minister of Commerce-George C. Price Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Natural Resources and Forestry-Florencio Marin Chief Justice-T. S. Cotran Speaker of the House-Robert Clifton Swift President of the Senate-Jane Usher Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Economic Development, and Minister of Education-Said Musa Minister of Energy, Transportation and Communications -Carlos Diaz Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries-Michael Espat Minister of Social Services and Community Development- Remijio Montejo Minister of Housing and Cooperatives-Valdemar Castillo Attorney General and Minister of Tourism and Environment- Glenn Godfrey Minister of Health and Minister of Urban Development-Dr. Theodore Aranda Minister of Works-Leopoldo Briceno Minister of Labor and Local Government-Samuel Waight Ambassador to the United States-Edward Laing Ambassador to the United Nations-Lindbergh Rogers Belize maintains an embassy in the United States at 3400 International Drive NW, #2J, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-363- 4505).


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. Sugar then became the principal export, but recently has been augmented by expanded production of citrus, bananas, seafood, and apparel, as well as a booming tourism industry. The country's major natural resource is 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. Belize is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which provides assured access to a large market for potential grain and livestock surpluses. Belize hopes that it will help stimulate the growth of commercial agriculture, although Belizean trade with the rest of the Caribbean is limited compared to that with the United States and Europe. The country is a beneficiary of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The CBI is a US Government program to stimulate investment in Caribbean nations by providing duty-free access to the US market for most Caribbean products. Significant US private investments have been made in Belize in citrus and shrimp farms under CBI. US trade preferences allowing for duty-free re-import of finished apparel cut from US textiles have recently doubled the apparel industry to 22% of merchandise exports. European Community and UK preferences have been vital for the expansion and prosperity of the sugar and banana industries. Belize's well-established policy of encouraging new foreign investment has been an important factor attracting capital for these ventures. Promising opportunities for growth and investment in Belize include citrus, bananas, beef, winter fruits and vegetables, aquaculture, tourism, forest products, and apparel. 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 a thriving tourist industry. Development costs are high, but the government of Belize has designated tourism as its second development priority after agriculture. Visitors totaled 132,000 in 1988, and the tourist industry is worth $47 million per year. The 1989 Tourism Sector Policy/Strategy Statement reserves the lower end of tourism development for Belizeans but welcomes foreign investor interest in larger projects. Economic performance is fragile, and although outstanding growth has been achieved in recent years, the achievements are vulnerable to world commodity price fluctuations and continuation of trade preferences. Economic growth is constrained by a number of factors, including the lack of infrastructure. No roads exist to service large tracts of potentially arable land and timber. Some roads, including sections of major highways, are subject to damage or closure during the rainy season. Electric service is costly at $.205 per kilowatt hour and unavailable in many rural areas. Inadequate roads and ports limit external marketing. Expansion of port handling facilities is underway in Belize City, and a new deep water port is being dredged in Big Creek to complement facilities in Belize City and Commerce Bight. Barges and lighters are used for sugar, bananas, and other shipments. Several areas are being improved through the efforts of the government of Belize, US assistance projects, and other donors. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Community, and the United Kingdom have projects to upgrade the quality of the Belizean road system. Steel and concrete bridges are being constructed to ensure year-round passage to remote portions of the country. Rural electrification is moving forward, and urban electric power is becoming more dependable. The USAID program is designed to enable Belize to plan the best use of its resources in agriculture, forestry (including tropical forestry and biodiversity protection), and tourism development. It includes technical assistance and training in these areas to help the government of Belize plan agriculture and tourism growth in a rational and ecologically sound manner. Under aid agreements with the United Kingdom and the Caribbean Development Bank, the international airport terminal is being replaced and the runway lengthened. A new water and sewer system is almost completed in Belize City with the help of the Canadian International Development Agency, and construction plans have been announced for a new 100-bed hospital for Belize City with the assistance of the European Community. A Ramada Inn hotel is under construction in Belize City with significant financing from the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The government recognizes the need to develop the country and has budgeted $45.2 million in fiscal year 1989-90 for capital expenditure. Much of the government's operating expenses are derived from customs duties and taxes, but most of the capital expenses are met through foreign assistance. Belize has consistently run a substantial trade deficit, reaching $48.4 million in 1988. The deficit is financed primarily by foreign aid, foreign investment, and remittances from Belizeans working in the United States. Merchandise imports in 1988 totaled $148.5 million, while exports were only $100.1 million. In 1988, the United States accounted for 52% of Belize's imports and 47% of exports. Other major trading partners are the European Community (17.5% of imports, of which the United Kingdom accounts for 8.2%), and Mexico (8.8% of imports).


Belize's principal external concern has been the dispute involving the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory and unwillingness to recognize Belizean independence. This dispute originated in imperial Spain's claim to all "New World" territories west of Portuguese colonization on the bulge of South America. 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 British Honduras. Guatemala holds 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 which the US Government sought unsuccessfully to mediate a solution. A 1981 trilateral "Heads of Agreement"-Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom-was never 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. To date, however, differences have not been resolved sufficiently to lead to a treaty. 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. Belize is a member of CARICOM. In 1990, it will be eligible to join the Organization of American States (OAS)-due to changes in the OAS charter-and intends to do so as soon as possible. Heretofore, Guatemalan objections have kept Belize out of the OAS and some other regional bodies.


The United States and Belize traditionally have had close and cordial relations since they were established in the 1930s. The United States is Belize's principal trading partner and major source of investment funds and is also home to the largest Belizean community outside Belize (an estimated 35,000 Belizeans live in the United States). Because Belize's economic growth and accompanying democratic political stability are important US objectives in an often troubled region, Belize benefits from the Central American and Caribbean Basin Initiatives. Through an active USAID program, the United States is now the largest provider of economic assistance to Belize. The Peace Corps has more than 100 volunteers in country. American investment and tourism are growing rapidly. Excellent air and shipping links to the United States facilitate trade and travel. The US Government cooperates with the government of Belize against illicit narcotics. In Punta Gorda, Voice of America operates a medium-wave radio relay station which broadcasts to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.


The Belize Defence Force (BDF), established in January 1973, consists of an infantry force of regulars and reservists along with small air and maritime wings. A British Loan Service Officer now commands the BDF but will be replaced by a Belizean officer in 1990. A British military garrison of 1,800 troops remains in Belize under an external defense agreement concluded with the United Kingdom at the time of independence. The BDF receives military training assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom. The United States established a military assistance office in Belize in 1983 and, in addition to training, has provided some grant funds for the purchase of materiel, primarily transport, communications, and individual equipment.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador-designate-Eugene L. Scassa Deputy Chief of Mission-Joseph Hayes AID Director-Mosina Jordan Economic/Commercial Officer-Katherine Christensen Political Officer-Alexander Featherstone Consul-Rudolph Boone Administrative Officer-Charles Grover Defense Attache-LtC. Randall Parish, Jr. Chief, Military Liaison Office-Maj. Jerry Croghan Peace Corps Director-Gary Arnold Voice of America Manager-Fred Haney The US Embassy is located in Belize City at the corner of Gabourel Lane and Hutson Streets. The mailing address is PO Box 286, Belize City, Belize, Central America. Telephone 011-501-2- 77161 from the United States, or 77161 locally. FAX to Embassy 011-501-2-30802 (24-hour coverage).


Customs and immigration: Passports are required of US citizens wishing to enter Belize. Travelers arriving by car may be required to post a customs bond equivalent to the import duty value of the car, but this requirement can be waived upon proof of visitor status. Travelers must demonstrate that they have sufficient funds for a visit ($30 per person per day) and onward travel. The government enforces a strict policy of refusing admittance to those whom an immigration officer suspects of drug use. Health: Medicines and care for ordinary needs are available in Belize City and the larger district towns. Tapwater is sometimes contaminated. Food served in local restaurants is generally safe. Telecommunications: Local and international telephone, telegraph, and telefax service is available in Belize. Belize time is the same as US Central Standard or Mountain Daylight time. Transportation: Belize is served by one US and two Central American airlines with connections to Central America and the United States (New Orleans, Miami, and Houston). Buses, taxis, light aircraft, and boats provide internal transportation. Buses and taxis are available in Belize City, and shopping areas are close to hotels. Local holidays: Businesses and shops may be closed on the following holidays: New Year's Day: Jan. 1 Baron Bliss Day: Mar. 9 Good Friday: date varies Holy Saturday: date varies Easter Monday: date varies Labor Day: May 1 Commonwealth Day: May 24 National Day: Sept. 10 Independence Day: Sept. 21 Pan American Day: Oct. 13 Garifuna Day: Nov. 19 Christmas Day: Dec. 25 Boxing Day: Dec. 26 Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- May 1990 -- Editor: Marilyn J. Bremner. Department of State Publication 8332 -- Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.(###)