Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, and while it has much things in common with the Caribbean island-states, formerly part of the British empire, the country is gradually establishing more realistic links with its geographic Spanish-speaking Central American neighbors.
In the past the majority of the population was English or Creole speaking African-descent Creoles. This is a legacy of its status as a former colony of the United Kingdom that 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 99 per cent completed as at May 2017.
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.
A new international airport is mostly completed at Independence Village in southern Belize, and while it has not been officially commissioned, it has been opened for special events, such as the SICA (Sistema de Integracion Centro Americana) summit in January 2015 where several heads of state landed there in their official jets.
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. The U.S. DEA and its surrogate here, the Belize Coast Guard, maintain bases at Hunting Caye, Belize City and Ambergris Caye in an attempt to intercept the illegal transit of drugs from South America to the U.S.
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 transplanted by the British from St. Vincent. 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 in the nineties 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.
Tourism is one of the largest sources of foreign currency. Attractions include extensive rain-forests, the largest cave system in Central America, major Maya ruins, 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 100 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 increased in recent years and mass tourism operators such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise have flooded the country with day visitors to the detriment of overnight tourism.
The country has a problem with crime mostly concentrated in Belize City, some of it of it drug and gang 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, 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 rubber-stamp 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: Sugar, bananas, citrus concentrate and solids, grain, beef, fish products, gold, molasses
• GNI per capita: US$4,510 (World Bank, 2014)
• Internet top level country domain: .bz
• Belize country 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. Surprisingly for students of Belize politics, the hierarchy of the P.U.P. is controlled by Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese and Middle East immigrants. Family names such as Musa, Shoman, Espat, Hassan, Arafat, Harmouche, Habet, Mahmoud, Abou Nehra, Wahib, Schakron and Sarkis are well-known financiers and insiders in the P.U.P.
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 held 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 election was won by the U.D.P. The U.D.P. government then enjoyed a more comfortable lead of 18 to 13 in parliament.
On 14 November 2015 the United Democratic Party headed by Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow won an unprecedented third consecutive third term in office, increasing its seats to 19 out of 31 in the House of Representatives.
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. Johnny Briceno, following the resignation of Francis Fonseca. Mr. Briceno is a former leader of the opposition and is a businessman with investments in the telecommunications sector partnered with British billionaire Michael Ashcroft.
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 is the country’s first black prime minister and also holds the post of minister of finance and natural resources. 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 11.6% of GDP in 2014. 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 2014.
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. 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 (Radio Belize in the colonial era) was privatized in 1998, and eventually dismantled. It was sold for pennies on the dollar to LOVE FM chief honcho Rene Villanueva.
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.
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
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”. Dry goods, namely clothing and shoes are dominated by immigrants from India and Pakistan.
• Amandala – biweekly – supports the opposition Peoples United Party – family members are prominent in the opposition.
• The Independent – weekly – (now defunct) an independent newspaper launched 2011 by former Amandala Editor Glenn Tillet and Omar Silva.
• 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
• 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
• Belize.com Travel Blog – Life and Travel in Belize and the Caribbean
Article Updated 1 July 2017