Article Updated 14 July 2014
Belize is the only English Speaking country in Central America, and while it has much things in common with the Caribbean island-states, the country is now more in sync with its Central American neighbors.
In the past the majority of the population was English or Creole speaking African-descent Creoles – a legacy of its status as a former colony of the United Kingdom which introduced slavery to the settlement then known as British Honduras. Outward migrations of Creoles to North America, and the inward migration of Latinos following civil wars in the eighties in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, upended the demographics of its once mainly Anglo-Caribbean architecture.
Spanish speaking Latinos and Mestizos now comprise 53% of the population (2010 census) but the country continues in a relatively peaceful path of socio-political development as it finds its unique place as a bilingual and young nation state on the Central American Isthmus.
The country has three official land border crossings, the first into Mexico at Santa Elena in the northern Corozal District, the second into Guatemala at Benque Viejo del Carmen in the Cayo District, and another crossing under development into Guatemala at Jalacte in the extreme Southern Highway 95 per cent completed as at June 2014.
The only official port of entry by air is the Phillip Goldson International Airport at Ladyville 12 miles north of Belize City. This city is the commercial and crime capital of the country and its dilapidated condition does not make it attractive for tourists.
Maritime entry and exit points are located at the north with Mexico, and at the south with Guatemala and Honduras. Passenger water taxis do daily runs into Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Belizeans consist of the peoples and cultures of the Americas –bilingual Spanish-English speaking Latinos, Mestizos, who are of mixed Maya Indian and European ancestry and mainly speak Spanish, the original settlers the Maya who speak their own language, Creoles, who speak a Creole dialect and who are often of African and African-European extraction, and the Garifuna, who are the descendants of Arawak Indians and Africans and have their own language and culture. More detailed information on Belize Demographics.
Formerly known as British Honduras, this was England’s last colony on the American mainland. Its independence was delayed until 1981 by long-running friction with neighboring Guatemala, which claims a large portion of its territory. Guatemala recognized Belizean independence in 1991, but the two neighbors have yet to settle their border dispute.
Interesting Factoid: the Belize Flag is the only national flag in the world to depict human beings. See our Belize Flag and National Anthem page.
The two countries agreed to take their dispute to the International Court of Justice. A simultaneous public referendum on the matter was scheduled for 6 October 2013. But this was delayed after Guatemala objected to disparities in the referendum laws in the two countries.
Belize has always had strong ties with Britain and the United States, but has recently also forged closer links with Latin American countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Venezuela due in large measure to the reality of its physical location. Most of its corn, bean and beef production for example is exported to Guatemala and Mexico. Lobster and shrimp is exported to Mexico and the U.S.A., while sugar is exported to England and the U.S.A. Bananas are exported to the European Union and citrus concentrate to the Caribbean and North America.
Due to economies of scale and the high cost of energy, the country has evolved its economy and the service sector has overtaken agriculture, forestry and fishing. But the discovery of oil has placed this industry as a major source of foreign exchange. It currently exports 5,000 barrels of sweet-light crude oil every day, mainly to refineries in Costa Rica and the U.S. Belize recently began to produce Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) and is now supplying 30% of its consumption thereby reducing imports from Mexico. But this oil production is on the decline and it is expected that the only producing oil field at Spanish Lookout will be depleted by 2019.
Tourism is one of the largest sources of foreign currency. Attractions include extensive rainforests, the largest cave system in Central America, major Maya ruins (many still undeveloped) wildlife, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and three of the four true atolls in the Americas including the Great Blue Hole. More than 200 islands and beaches nestled inside the reef make for traditional sun, sand and sea attractions as well as world class SCUBA diving. Check out our article on the Xunantunich Maya Ruin.
Cruise ship arrivals have jumped in recent years and mass tourism operators such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise have flooded the country with day visitors .
But a push back from environmentalists and overnight tourism investors who have raised concerns has led to reduction of ship calls.
Attempts by the cruise lines to cut operating expenses by bringing in foreign tour guides from low-wage countries such as Jamaica to displace local tour operators have led to controversy and opposition to further expansion of this type of mass tourism.
The country has a problem with crime mostly concentrated in Belize City, some of it of it drug-related but it has so far been able to escape the very serious problems of this type plaguing Mexico and Guatemala.
• Full name: Belize
• Capital: City Of Belmopan
• Population: 312,900 (UN, 2010)
• Area: 22,965 sq. km (8,867 sq. miles)
• Major languages: English (official), Spanish, Maya, Garifuna , Creole
• Political System: Westminster style two party democracy – general elections every 5 years.
• Legal System: Based on English Common Law
• Legislative: Bicameral – elected House of Representatives – government controlled symbolic Senate
• Major religion: Christianity
• Head of State: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
• Head of Government: Prime Minister Dean Barrow – elected 2008
• Life expectancy: 75 years (men), 79 years (women) (UN)
• Currency Exchange: Fixed peg to U.S. Dollar – 2 Belize dollars = 1 U.S. Dollar
• Monetary unit: 1 Belize dollar = 100 cents
• Main exports: Petroleum, sugar, bananas, citrus concentrate and solids, grain, fish products, molasses
• GNI per capita: US$3,740 (World Bank, 2009)
• Internet top level country domain: .bz
• International dialing code: +501
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a local ceremonial governor.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow was elected on an anti-corruption platform. The United Democratic Party (UDP) won the general election in February 2008. It unseated the People’s United Party (PUP) government of Rt. Hon. Said Musa, which had been in power for 10 years.
On 7 March 2012 Mr. Barrow and the UDP were re elected to a second term of office with a greatly reduced mandate. Where the UDP previously enjoyed a super majority in parliament, it now holds a slim 17 to 14 lead in the House of Representatives. The inaugural session of the new Belize parliament took place on 21 March 2012.
The PUP was the driving force behind independence and won 10 of the 12 elections since Belize first elected a legislative assembly under British rule in 1954. It has its roots in the labor movement and is considered a nationalistic party. In its most recent term of office it appeared to have abandoned its roots and was perceived as favoring big business and party insiders.
The PUP is headed by Leader of the Opposition Hon. Francis Fonseca, elected PUP party leader on 30 October 2011. Mr. Fonseca is an attorney-at-law, and former minister of education in the previous PUP government. Hon. John Briceno resigned as leader of the Peoples United Party on 7 October 2011 citing health reasons. Mr. Mark Espat a long time PUP minister and member of parliament briefly served as PUP leader before being rejected by his party and eventually defecting to the ruling UDP.
Mr. Barrow promised a government against graft, increased investment on infrastructure and the establishment of an elected Senate to replace the appointed upper house of parliament.
Mr. Barrow retracted his pledge to establish an elected Senate and to date the Senate remains a rubber stamp symbolic body. He has reshuffled his cabinet twice in three years and to his credit has fired and demoted ministers involved in alleged wrongdoing.
Mr. Barrow is the country’s first black prime minister and also holds the post of minister of finance. A prominent criminal defense lawyer known for his oratorical skills, he was elected to parliament in 1984 under the leadership of then Prime Minister Sir Manuel Esquivel who appointed him Foreign Minister. He has served in senior positions in UDP governments until the PUP won a landslide in 1998.
After former Prime Minister Sir Manuel Esquivel announced his retirement from electoral politics, Mr. Barrow led the party in opposition until its victory at the polls in 2008.
Belize’s First Prime Minister and the architect of Belizean Independence Rt. Hon. George Cadle Price passed away on 19 September 2011.
Small, open economy with high vulnerability to external shocks. The country remains relatively dependent on the agricultural sector, which accounted for 11.4% of GDP in 2012. While the largest export item, petroleum products, accounted for 36.2% of total exports in 2012, the U.S. remained the largest single destination with a market share of around 30% (followed by the UK with a share of around 20%). The country remains vulnerable to bad local climate conditions, lower commodity and petroleum prices as well as a weaker US and UK economy. Source: Deutsche Bank Research Frontier Country Report 2013.
Being a Third World country in the full sense of the phrase, investors and businessmen can expect significant challenges in setting up a business here. Onerous taxation, a plethora of rules and regulations, incompetent or corrupt politicians and bureaucrats are a gauntlet that any investor must take into account. But the government has been making efforts to make the investment climate more attractive – see our Doing Business In Belize article.
All newspapers are weeklies, except for the Amandala which is a biweekly; some of the privately-owned weeklies are subsidized by political parties. Government advertising is routinely channeled to media that are in its good graces.
The state-run Broadcasting Corporation of Belize was privatized in 1998, and eventually dismantled. Listeners now have a wide range of private commercial stations, most of them available countrywide on air and on TV channels.
A staple of local electronic media are call-in shows in the mornings on weekdays where members of the public call to report political shenanigans and complaints or share community news. Private television stations are on the air in major population centers and cable TV is available in the towns and villages.
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but there are exceptions in the interest of national security, public order and morality. There is no U.S. style First Amendment and the laws are more in line with those of its former colonial master. In 2010 Prime Minister Barrow officially blacklisted Channel 5 Television after the station ran a series of award-winning investigative reports on government corruption. Criticism from the New York based Committee To Protect Journalists, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union and the U.S. Embassy in Belize along with public discontent forced Mr. Barrow to reverse his stance and lift its embargo on the media house.
Travel Advisory And Personal Safety
This is a poverty stricken developing country and there are several country specific issues travelers and visitors need to take into account. While crime is no different from any other country, certain local conditions make it imperative for the traveler to take into account the reality that the crime rate is among the highest in Central America. Concerns include travel at night, road conditions, remote areas, and health risks.
Regulations and enforcement of what you would take for granted in your home country, are not what you may expect. The police, coast guard and other regulatory bodies are either under staffed, overwhelmed, corrupt or incompetent depending on who you ask.
Boating accidents due to overloaded vessels, or vessels operating at high speed near the beach and running over snorkelers with disastrous results are not uncommon. Refer to the Belize Travel Advisory page.
Gun Ownership In Belize
For North American nationals, especially those from the U.S. accustomed to the right to bear arms, Belize can be a challenge . Gun ownership in Belize is very restrictive; not impossible, but very difficult to navigate. The country has in place a quagmire of laws aimed at restricting gun ownership. If you are a permanent resident or have acquired citizenship, gun ownership is possible. A thorough background check is conducted and the waiting period can be as long as six months.
It is worth considering that Belize has draconian gun laws. For example, forgetting to renew your gun permit will not get you a nice reminder letter in the mail. You risk being detained by the cops and thrown into jail without recourse to bail for one month. Possession of one bullet in excess of your quota (100 rounds at any one time) or the wrong caliber, is firearm offense, and also leads to immediate remand to prison without bail for one month. Applications for bail on firearm offenses must be done at the Supreme Court level, a ridiculous regulation aimed at making it very expensive and tedious to gain your freedom until your case is heard. Getting even the cheapest lawyer in town to handle your bail application at the Supreme Court will cost you $5,000.
The country has a small but active private sector. Like most developing countries much of the economy is informal. The two main private sector advocacy groups are the Belize Chamber of Commerce and the Belize Business Bureau.
The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) publication produced by the World Bank, “Snapshot Caribbean – Benchmarking FDI Competitiveness in Caribbean Countries”, recently looked at three sectors: Export Services, Food Processing, and Tourism Investment in Belize. These are three of the five priority sectors for export and investment promotion in Belize. In this report, it listed several reasons investors chose to invest in Belize.
Exports: English-speaking workforce, proximity to the United States, labor availability, reasonable quality but expensive telecommunications, tax holidays, relative political stability.
Food processing: Land availability, availability of raw materials, business opportunities in aquaculture and citrus, prevalence of traditional growing methods, good agricultural and corporate, practices, market access, infrastructure and facilities, availability of managers and professionals.
Merchant and Retail Trade
With a few exceptions, the retail trade in this country, especially foodstuffs, supermarkets and small shops is dominated by immigrants from China and Taiwan. This group imports a substantial portion of their inventory direct from Asia, some of it labelled in Chinese. The two largest supermarkets still owned by Belizeans are in Belize City and survive mainly because they are also long-standing importers with a large portfolio of western brands that they represent, and also have “a man in congress”. The head of one of the largest importers in Belize is a member of the Belize Cabinet. Dry goods, namely clothing and shoes are dominated by immigrants from India and Pakistan.
Tourism: Demand for hotel rooms, beautiful scenery, reefs, Caribbean sea, and Maya ruins, land availability, proximity to the United States of America, availability of “green” recreation, friendly, service-oriented workers.
The U.S. State Department blacklisted Belize on 18 September 2011. US President Barack Obama added Belize and El Salvador to a blacklist of countries considered major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs. In September 2012 the country made the blacklist again.
The U.S. State Department claims cartels are using the two Central American nations as routes for smuggling cocaine from South America north to Mexico and the US. Belize, joined the other Central American countries Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama on the blacklist, with Mexico and major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru.
In comments on national television, Prime Minister Dean Barrow dismissed the U.S. black list stating that the U.S. should deal with its problems first as the world’s largest consumer of drugs, before pointing fingers at other countries. A statement printed in the ruling United Democratic Newspaper The Guardian, states “…the United States is in no position to point blame for the drug game. As the largest consumer, they are to hold blame for the turmoil this region is in due to the drug trade. Without the North’s demand for drugs there would be no drug industry.”
In August 2012 the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted a well-known businessman Mr. John Zabaneh as a “Drug Kingpin” and prohibited U.S. nationals and entities from doing business with his companies that include the country’s largest banana farm. To date is has produced no evidence to substantiate the allegation.
• Amandala – biweekly – supports the ruling United Democratic Party – family members are prominent in the ruling government.
• The Independent – weekly – (now defunct) an independent newspaper launched 2011 by former Amandala Editor Glenn Tillet.
• The Belize Times – weekly – official organ of People’s United Party (this newspaper ceased print publication August 2012).
• The Reporter – weekly U.D.P. affiliated
• The San Pedro Sun – community weekly, published on San Pedro Island
• The Guardian – official organ of the United Democratic Party
• All Belize News – Online Belize News from local print and electronic media.
• Love FM – commercial, music and news
• Estereo Amor – private, Spanish-language
• Krem FM – private, commercial – part of the Amandala newspaper
• More FM – private, music station aimed at younger listeners
• Wave Radio – organ of the United Democratic Party
• Vibes Radio – organ of the People’s United Party
• My Refuge Radio – Christian
• All Belize News – All Belize News in one place – updated on the hour 7 days a week.
• Belize Tourism Board – government funded and controlled
• Belize Government – Belize government website
• Ambergris Today – Guide to Ambergris Caye
• Belize Net – classifieds
• Ambergris Caye – guide to Ambergris Caye
• Belizean – Independent Belize News
• Belize.com Travel Blog – Life and Travel in Belize and the Caribbean
• Belize Free Press – Belize News
Membership International Organizations
The country is a member of the United Nations and WTO (World Trade Organisation) and the regional groupings of CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market), SICA (Central American Integration System), OAS (Organisation of American States), Commonwealth, ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific), NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), San Jose Group, Association of Caribbean States (ACS), CDB (Caribbean Development Bank), the World Bank Group, IMF (International Monetary Fund), IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) and the International Committee to Protect Journalists.