Capital city: Belmopan
Population: 404,914 (2021)
Land area: 22,966 km²
Official language: English
Legal system: English common law
Time zone: GMT-6
Currency: Belize dollar
GDP: 1.7 billion USD (2021)
Main industries: Garment production, food processing, tourism, construction, oil
Principal exports: Seafood, sugar, citrus products, bananas, and clothing
Belize, located on the northeast coast of Central America, was the last British colony on the American mainland. Its prolonged path to independence was marked by a unique international campaign against the irredentist claims of its neighbour Guatemala. Independence was achieved on September 21, 1981, but historical link is still retained with the United Kingdom through membership in the Commonwealth. Many Belizeans are of mixed ancestry, comprising descendants of immigrants. Those of mixed Mayan and Spanish heritage (mestizos) constitute about one-half of the population. Whereas two-fifth of the population adheres to Roman Catholicism. Belize has one of the most stable and democratic political systems in Central America.
Key dates in the history of Belize:
16th-19th centuries – The Spanish arrive; Spanish rule ends in 1862 when Belize is formally declared a British crown colony and named British Honduras.
1954 – Constitutional reforms give Belize limited autonomy; general elections won by People’s United Party (PUP), led by George Price.
1964 – New constitution gives Belize full autonomy and introduces universal adult suffrage and a two-chamber parliament. In 1973, the country changes its name from British Honduras to Belize.
1981 – Belize becomes independent with George Price as prime minister, but Guatemala refuses to recognise it. About 1,500 British troops remain to defend the country against Guatemalan territorial claims. Guatemala recognises Belize’s independence in 1992 although the territorial conflict remains.
2002 – Belize, Guatemala agree on a draft settlement to their long-standing border dispute at talks brokered by the Organisation of American States (OAS). The deal, which proposed referendums in both countries, is rejected by Guatemala in 2003.
2005 – Rioting breaks out in the capital during a wave of anti-government protests.
2011 – Belize is added to US blacklist of countries considered to be major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs.
2015 – Prime Minister Barrow leads his ruling United Democratic Party to a record third consecutive five-year term in a snap election. Territorial conflict with Guatemala continues; Guatemala has made claims to all or part of Belize since 1940.
2020- Prime Minister Briceno of People’s United Party takes power.
Belize has a developing free-market economy. Commercial logging and the export of timber were for years the basis of the Belizean economy. But by 1960, the combined value of sugar and citrus exports had exceeded that of timber. Owing to destruction of forests and price fluctuations of traditional export products, Belize had opened up its economy to nontraditional agricultural products and manufacturing activities by the end of the 20th century. Since 1990s, the Belizean government has attempted to expand the economy, but heavy borrowing led to debt restructuring in the mid-2000s. As is the case with many modern economies, services have become Belize’s dominant economic activity. Tourism is a major source of foreign income, partly as a result of an increase in cruise ship arrivals.
The economy is expected to make a gradual recovery in second-half 2021 as Covid-19 risks diminish and tourism picks up. Inflation will be helped by the currency peg.
Belize’s government is based on the British parliamentary system. The 1981 constitution provides for a bicameral National Assembly composed of an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate. Members of the House and the Senate both serve five-year terms. The governor-general, a Belizean national who represents the British crown, nominally appoints the prime minister (the leader of the majority party in the House) and the opposition leader (the leader of the principal minority party). The prime minister appoints the cabinet.
The Maya lived in Belize for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
British buccaneers and logwood cutters settled on the inhospitable coast in the mid-17th century. By treaties signed in 1763 and 1783, Spain granted British subjects the privilege of exploiting logwood. Indeed, Spain retained sovereignty over the area, which Britain called a settlement. The Spanish also prohibited the settlers from establishing a formal government structure, so the British conducted their affairs through public meetings and elected magistrates. However, superintendents, appointed by the British government after 1786, slowly established their executive authority at the expense of the settlers’ oligarchy. In 1798, the British overcame Spain’s final attempt to remove them by force, and Belize became a colony. In 1854, a constitution formally created a Legislative Assembly of 18 members, who were elected by a limited franchise.
Belize became the British colony of British Honduras in 1862—which was ruled by a governor who was subordinate to the governor of Jamaica—and a crown colony in 1871, when the Legislative Assembly was abolished. British Honduras remained subordinate to Jamaica until 1884, when it acquired a separate colonial administration under an appointed governor.
Beginning in the early 19th century, a mixed population of Carib Indians and Africans exiled from British colonies settled on the southern coast of Belize. The Caste War, an indigenous uprising in the Yucatán resulted in several thousand Spanish-speaking refugees’ settling in northern Belize, while Mayan communities were re-established in the north and west. These immigrants introduced a variety of agricultural developments, including traditional subsistence farming and the beginning of sugar, banana, and citrus production. In the 1860s and 70s, the owners of sugar estates sponsored the immigration of several hundred Chinese and South Asian labourers. In the late 19th century, Mopán and Kekchí Maya, fleeing from oppression in Guatemala, established largely self-sufficient communities in southern and western Belize.
By the early 20th century, the ethnic mixture of the area had been established, the economy was stagnant, and crown colony government precluded any democratic participation. A series of strikes and demonstrations by labourers and the unemployed gave rise to a trade union movement and to demands for democratization. The right to vote for the Legislative Assembly was reintroduced in 1936, but property, literacy, and gender qualifications severely limited the franchise. When the governor used his reserve powers to devalue the currency at the end of 1949, leaders of the trade union and the Creole middle class formed a People’s Committee to demand constitutional changes. The People’s United Party (PUP) emerged from the committee in 1950 and led the independence movement and has become a dominant political party for the next 30 years.
Belize evolved through several stages of decolonization, from universal adult suffrage in 1954 to a new constitution and internal self-government in 1964, when George Price, a middle-class Roman Catholic intellectual of mixed Creole and mestizo ancestry, became premier. Unrelenting Guatemalan hostility, however, impeded independence. In the 1970s, Belize took its case for self-determination to the international community, appealing to the United Nations (UN) and joining the Nonaligned Movement. Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, with a British defense guarantee, and was admitted to the UN. The British military presence was withdrawn in 1994, and border security became the sole responsibility of the Belize Defence Force, which had been created in 1978. By the early 1990s, Guatemala had formally recognized Belize as an independent state, and Belize had joined the Organization of American States (OAS); however, the territorial dispute heated up again in the late 1990s. In 2005, the two countries agreed that if a negotiated settlement proved to be impossible, the dispute could be settled by an international legal entity. In 2008, the governments of Belize and Guatemala agreed to submit their case to the International Court of Justice.
In domestic politics, the United Democratic Party (UDP), formed in 1973 and led by Manuel Esquivel, won the general election in 1984, but in 1989 the PUP won the election and Price again became prime minister. The UDP won in a close election in 1993, and Esquivel again assumed leadership. In 1998, however, the PUP won by a landslide and its new leader, Said Musa, became prime minister.
Musa’s decision to raise taxes to pay off foreign debt sparked riots throughout Belize in 2005, and his administration was accused of corruption. The UDP, now led by Dean Barrow, triumphed in the 2008 general elections, and Barrow became the country’s first black prime minister. His party promised to end crime and government corruption and to create an elected Senate. Although a democratic tradition has been established in Belize, the country has struggled to develop under a dependent economy, and it has been pressured politically by the pervasive influence of the United States. The discovery of abundant quantities of oil near the Mennonite community at Spanish Lookout in the early 2000s was a boon for the country’s ailing economy, but, because Belize has no oil refineries, most of its crude oil is exported to the United States.
In July 2010, Barrow’s government introduced a controversial ninth amendment to the constitution to give the state majority ownership of public utilities which was passed by both houses of the legislature and was enacted in late October.
In elections on March 7, 2012, Barrow’s UDP government retained power. The UDP was also victorious in municipal elections. Following negotiations with creditors, in 2013, the government restructured its $550 million “superbond” debt at a cost of about $750,000 with a maturity date of 2038. In a snap election in November 2015, Barrow and the UDP triumphed again, winning an unprecedented third term.
The centre-left People’s United Party won the general election in November 2020 with 59% of the vote. New Prime Minister Juan Antonio Briceno now controls a large majority in the legislature (26 out of 31 seats).