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 46.4% of the population is of mixed Mayan and European descent (Mestizo); 27.7% are of African and Afro-European (Creole) ancestry; about 10% are Mayan; and about 6.4% are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remainder, about 9.5%, includes European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and North American groups.
English, the official language, is spoken by virtually all except the refugees that arrived during the past decade. 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 76%. 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.
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.
Ambassador to the United States and the OAS -- James Murphy
Ambassador to the United Nations -- Michael Ashcroft
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 elected by the prime minister, two by the leader of the opposition, and one by the governor general on the advice of the Belize Advisory Council. The Senate is headed by a president who is a non-voting member appointed by the governing party.
Currently, the Belize Government is controlled by the People's United Party (PUP) which won 26 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives on August 27, 1998. The United Democratic Party (UDP) won the other three seats. Dean Barrow is the leader of the opposition. The UDP governed Belize from 1993-98; the PUP had governed from 1989 -93; and the UDP from 1984-89. Before 1984, the PUP had dominated the electoral scene for more than 30 years and was the party in power when Belize became independent in 1981.
Prime Minister Said Musa has an ambitious plan to encourage economic growth while furthering social-sector development. Belize traditionally maintains 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. A long-running territorial dispute with Guatemala continues although cooperation between the two countries has increased in recent years across a wide spectrum of common interests, including trade and environment. Seeing itself as a bridge, Belize is actively involved with the Caribbean nations of CARICOM and also has 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, Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo.
The Belize Defense 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 Brig. Gen. Robert Garcia, 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.
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. Negotiations between Belize and Guatemala resumed on February 25, 2000, in Miami, Florida, but were suspended due to a border incident that occurred February 24, 2000. Further talks were held March 14, 2000, between both countries at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC, in the presence of the OAS Secretary General. 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).
International crime issues dominate the agenda of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Belize. 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 $1.1 million in various bilateral economic and military aid programs to Belize in 1999. 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 the International Bureau of Broadcasting/Voice of America (IBB/VOA) 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 and growing assistance program in Belize which includes the planned construction of seven schools and four water wells in 2000. Private American investors who are responsible for some $250 million total investment in Belize continue to play a key role in Belize's economy particularly in the tourism sector.
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 Executive Office; 35321 Administrative Office; 71468 Economic/Commercial/Political Office; 35423 Consular Section. E-mail address: email@example.com, Web Site address: http://www.usemb-belize.gov