U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BELIZE BACKGROUND NOTES, SEPTEMBER 1997
RELEASED BY THE BUREAU OF INTER-AMERICAN AFFAIRS

OFFICIAL NAME
Belize

PROFILE

Geography

Area:  22,923 sq. km. (8,867 sq. mi.); slightly larger than 
Massachusetts.
Cities: Capital-Belmopan (pop. 5,845). Other cities and towns-Belize 
City (52,500), Corozal (7,795), Orange Walk (13,425), San Ignacio  & 
Santa Elena (11,690), Dangriga (6,930), Punta Gorda (3,680), and San 
Pedro (3,250).
Terrain: Flat and swampy coastline, low mountains in interior.
Climate: Sub-tropical (dry and wet seasons). Hot and humid. Rainfall-
Ranges from 60 inches in the north to 200 inches in the south annually.

People

Nationality: Noun and adjective-Belizean(s).
Population (1995 est.): 216,000.
Annual growth rate: About 3%.
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-75%.
Health: (1995): Infant mortality rate-27/1,000. Life expectancy-71 
years.
Work force (71,000): Services-50.8%; Agriculture, hunting, forestry 
fishing-27.2%; Industry and commerce-17.8%; Other-4.2%.

Government

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: six districts.
Political parties: People's United Party (PUP), United Democratic Party 
(UDP), National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR).
Suffrage: Universal adult.

Economy

GDP (1995): $493 million.
Annual growth rate (1995): 3.8%.
Per capita income: $2,359.
Avg. inflation rate (1995): 2.9%.
Natural resources: Arable land, timber, seafood, minerals. 
Agriculture (14% of GDP): Products-sugar, citrus fruits and juices, 
bananas, mangoes, papayas, honey, corn, beans, rice, cattle.
Industry (17% of GDP): Types-clothing, fruit processing, beverages.
Tourism (18% of GDP): Tourist arrivals (1995): 112,000.
Trade (1995): Exports-$143 million; cane sugar, clothing, citrus 
concentrate, lobster, fish, banana, and farmed shrimp. Major markets-
U.S.(33%), U.K., CARICOM. Imports-$259 million: food, consumer goods, 
building materials, vehicles, machinery, petroleum products. Major 
suppliers-U.S.(54%), Mexico, U.K.
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=US$1.

PEOPLE

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 44.1% of the population 
is of mixed Mayan and European descent (mestizo); 31% are of African and 
Afro-European (Creole) ancestry; about 9.2% are Mayan; and about 6.2% 
are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remainder, about 9.2%, includes 
European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and North American 
groups.

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 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 a little over 75%. 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. 

HISTORY

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 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.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

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. Currently, 
every member of the governing party in the National Assembly holds one 
or more ministry portfolios.

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 selected by the 
prime minister, two by the leader of the opposition, and one by the 
governor general.

Currently, the Belize Government is controlled by a coalition of the 
United Democratic Party (UDP) and the National Alliance for Belizean 
Rights (NABR), which won 16 of the 29 seats in the House of 
Representatives on June 30, 1993, despite having gained only 49% of the 
total popular vote. The People's United Party (PUP) won the other 13 
seats. The PUP had governed Belize from September 1989 until June 1993, 
and the UDP from December 1984 until September 1989. Before 1984, the 
PUP had dominated the electoral scene for over 30 years and was the 
party in power when Belize became independent in 1981.

Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel and his coalition encourage economic 
growth which is balanced by 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 and to resolve a long running 
border dispute with Guatemala. Seeing itself as a bridge, Belize is 
actively involved with the Caribbean nations of CARICOM and has also 
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, Cayo, Belize, Stann Creek, and Toledo.

National Security 

The Belize Defence 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 Brigadier 
General Earl Arthurs, 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 
Governor General-Dr. Colville N. Young, Sr. 
Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Economic Development-Manuel E. 
Esquivel 
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of National 
Security and Attorney General-Dean O. Barrow 
Ambassador to the United States and the OAS-James Murphy 
Ambassador to the United Nations-Vacant

Belize maintains an embassy in the United States at 2535 Massachusetts 
Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (Tel: 202-332-9636; Fax: 202-332-6888). 
Belize travel information office in New York City: 800-624-0686.

ECONOMY

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 embassy knows of 185 U.S. 
companies which have operations in Belize, including Dominion Resources, 
Texaco, and Esso. Tourism attracts the most foreign direct investment, 
although significant U.S. investment is also 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 1995, tourist arrivals totaled 112,000 (more than 85,000 
from the U.S.) and tourist receipts amounted to $75.5 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 Embassy's 
Economic/Commercial section.

Infrastructure

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. 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 
Houston, Miami, New Orleans, and San Salvador.

Several capital projects are currently underway. The largest of these is 
a $53.5 million project to rehabilitate the Southern Highway. In 
addition, two public hospitals in the Orange Walk and Stann Creek 
districts are being rehabilitated; and major improvements at the Philip 
Goldson International Airport and at the San Pedro Airstrip began in 
late 1996.

Trade 

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. and U.K.

Belize continues to rely heavily on foreign trade, with the United 
States as its number one trading partner. Total imports in 1995 totaled 
$259 million, while total exports were only $143 million. In 1995, the 
U.S. accounted for 33% of Belize's total exports and provided 54% of all 
Belizean imports. Other major trading partners include the U.K., 
European Union, Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) 
members.

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.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

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 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. 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).

U.S.-BELIZEAN RELATIONS

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 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 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. President Clinton designated Belize a major 
transit nation for cocaine in April 1996; 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 $13.3 million in various bilateral economic and 
military aid programs to Belize in 1995. 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, Voice of America 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 assistance program in Belize, 
which included the construction of three schools in 1996 with six more 
school construction projects planned for 1997. Private American 
investors, responsible for some $250 million total investment in Belize, 
continue play a key role in Belize's economy, particularly in the 
tourism sector.

Principal U.S. Officials 

Ambassador-George Bruno 
Deputy Chief of Mission-Frank Parker 
Political Officer/Public Affairs Officer-John Connerley  
Economic/Commercial Officer-Valerie Belon 
Consul-Ann Gordon 
Administrative Officer-Jesse Coronado

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:  011-501-2-30802/35321.)  Internet 
Address: consul.embelizedos.us-state.gov 

Other useful contacts:

Caribbean/Latin American Action 
1818 N Street, NW, 
Washington, DC 20036 
Tel: 202-466-7464
Fax: 202-822-0075

U.S. Department of Commerce 
International Trade Administration 
Office of Latin America and the Caribbean
14th & Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Tel.: 202-482-1658; 202-USA-TRADE 
Fax: 202-482-0464

TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION 

The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides 
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are 
issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel 
to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all 
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency 
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and 
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in 
the 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. Travel Warnings and Consular Information 
Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: 
http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). 
To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will 
accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-
8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. 
The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is 
required). The CABB also carries international security information from 
the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of 
Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication 
series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a 
safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, 
U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-
7954; 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 Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-
day a week 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) 

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers 
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 
(404) 332-4559 gives 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; Dispatch, 
the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; 
directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's 
World Wide Web site is at http://www.state.gov; this site has a link to 
the DOSFAN Gopher Research Collection, which also is accessible at 
gopher://gopher.state.gov.

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a semi-annual basis 
by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the 
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of 
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact 
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. 
Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or 
fax (202) 512-2250.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of 
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information, 
including Country Commercial Guides. 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. 

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