Belize

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Belize

Belize (bəlēz´), independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations (2005 est. pop. 279,500), 8,867 sq mi (22,965 sq km), Central America, on the Caribbean Sea. Belize is bounded on the N by Mexico, on the S and W by Guatemala, and on the E by the Caribbean. The capital is Belmopan. Belize City, the capital until 1970, is the largest city and main port.

Land and People

The land is generally low, with mangrove swamps and cays along the coast, but in the south rises to Victoria Peak (c.3,700 ft/1,128 m high). The climate is subtropical. Although most of the area is heavily forested, yielding mahogany, cedar, and logwood, there are regions of fertile savannas and barren pine ridges.

Besides the capital and Belize City, other important urban areas are Orange Walk, Corozal, and Dangringa. About evenly divided between urban and rural, the people are mainly of mestizo, creole, Mayan, or Garifuna (Afro–Caribbean Indian) descent. English is the official language; Spanish and Mayan are also spoken. About half the population is Roman Catholic; there is a large Protestant minority.

Economy and Government

Although only a small fraction of the land is cultivated, agriculture provides about 75% of Belize's exports, the chief of which are fish products, citrus, sugar, and bananas. Clothing and timber are also important products and export items, and there is some petroleum, which began being exported in 2006. Tourism is the main source of foreign exchange. Machinery, manufactured goods, fuel, chemicals, and food are imported. The United States, Great Britain, and Mexico are the main trading partners.

A parliamentary democracy, Belize is governed under the constitution of 1981. The monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by the governor-general, is the head of state. The head of government is the prime minister. There is a bicameral National Assembly with a 12-seat appointed Senate and a 29-seat elected House of Representatives; all members serve five-year terms. The country is divided administratively into six districts.

History

In 1993 archaeologists discovered evidence of a farming community in Belize dating from 2500–1100 BC The Mayas first settled in the area some 200 to 300 years later, and a few ancient Maya cities still survive. The region was probably traversed by Cortés on his way to Honduras, but the Spanish made no attempt at colonization. British buccaneers, who used the cays to prey on Spanish shipping, founded Belize (early 17th cent.). British settlers from Jamaica began the exploitation of timber. Spain contested British possession several times until defeated at the last battle of St. George's Cay (1798). From 1862 to 1884 the colony was administered by the governor of Jamaica.

Guatemala long claimed the territory as part of its inheritance from Spain. As Belize progressed toward independence, the tension between Britain and Guatemala over the issue increased. In 1964 the colony gained complete internal self-government, and in 1981 Belize achieved independence, a development that prompted Guatemala to threaten war. Relations improved, however, and in Sept., 1991, Guatemala officially recognized Belize's independence and sovereignty. Nonetheless, a British force aimed at guaranteeing independence remained in the country until Sept., 1994. The poorly defined border, however, remained a source of tension. In 1993 Manuel Esquivel of the United Democratic party (UDP) became prime minister; he was replaced in 1998 by Said Musa of the People's United party (PUP). In 2000, under the sponsorship of the Organization of the American States, Belize and Guatemala began negotiations to end their territorial dispute, and in 2002 they reached agreement on a draft settlement, which must be approved by national referendums. Musa's party was returned to power in the Mar., 2003, parliamentary elections. Corruption allegations and party infighting contributed to the PUP's loss in the Feb., 2008, elections, and Dean Barrow, the UDP party leader, succeeded Musa as prime minister. The UDP also won the Mar., 2012, elections, although it saw its majority reduced.

Bibliography

See N. O. Bolland, The Formation of a Colonial Society (1977); J. A. Fernandez, Belize: A Case Study for Democracy in Central America (1989).

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