U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Belize, March 1998
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.
OFFICIAL NAME: Belize
Area: 22,923 sq. km. (8,867 sq. mi.); slightly larger than
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
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.
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
Work force (71,000): Services--50.8%. Agriculture, hunting, forestry,
fishing--27.2%. Industry and commerce--17.8%. Other--4.2%.
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 (1997 est): $532 million.
Annual growth rate (1997): 2.9%.
Per capita income: $2,316.
Avg. inflation rate (1997): 1%.
Natural resources: Arable land, timber, seafood, minerals.
Agriculture (17% of GDP): Products--sugar, citrus concentrate, bananas,
papayas, honey, corn, beans, rice, cattle.
Industry (18% of GDP): Types--clothing, fruit processing, beverages.
Tourism (18% of GDP): Tourist arrivals (1997)--160,000 (60% from the
Trade : Exports--$167.6 million (1996); $140.5 million (Jan.-Sep. 1997):
cane sugar, clothing, citrus concentrate, banana, and marine products.
Major markets--U.S.(1996, 42%; Jan.-Sep. 1997, 49%), U.K., CARICOM.
Imports (1996)--$255.6 million; $241.6 million Jan.-Sep. 1997: food,
consumer goods, building materials, vehicles, machinery, petroleum
products. Major suppliers--U.S. (55% 1996; 50% Jan.-Sep. 1997), Mexico,
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.
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
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.
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
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. National
elections are consitutionally mandated prior to October 15, 1998.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 1996, tourist arrivals totaled 160,000 (more than 60%
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
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
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 1996 totaled
$255.6 million, while total exports were only $167.6 million. In 1996,
the U.S. accounted for 42% of Belize's total exports and provided 55% of
all Belizean imports. Other major trading partners include the U.K.,
European Union, Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM)
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
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).
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.
In May 1997, Prime Minister Esquivel joined President Clinton and his
counterparts from Central America and the Dominican Republic in Costa
Rica to celebrate the remarkable democratic transformation in the region
and reaffirm support for strengthening democracy, good governance, and
promoting prosperity through economic integration, free trade, and
investment. The leaders also expressed their commitment to the continued
development of just and equitable societies and responsible
environmental policies as integral elements of sustainable development.
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 to play a key role in Belize's economy, particularly in the
Principal U.S. Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Frank Parker
Economic/Commercial/Political/Public Affairs Officer--Valerie Belon
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:
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION
Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
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
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
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:
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
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-
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).
Registering with the embassy may help you to replace lost identity
documents or 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,
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Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign
service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an 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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