Reference work entry
Part of the The Statesman's Yearbook book series (SYBK)

Capital: Belmopan

population projection, 2020: 398,000

GNI per capita, 2014: (PPP$) 7,614

HDI/world rank, 2014: 0·715/101=

Internet domain extension: .bz

Key Historical Events

Evidence of farming settlements at Cuello in northern Belize dates to around 2000 BC. Over the following centuries Mayan towns and villages encompassed Belize, Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and much of Guatemala. The city of Caracol, near Belize’s border with Guatemala, is estimated to have spread over 140 sq. km, with some 180,000 residents at its height in the 7th century AD. However, the Mayan civilization declined rapidly after 900 AD for reasons that are still unclear. Construction of the great pyramid temples ceased, literacy was abandoned and subsistence farming returned.

By 1525 the Spanish adventurer, Hernán Cortés, established a base in Honduras. From 1543 Melchor and Alonso Pacheco took control of land around Tipu in southern Belize, which became part of the Spanish Empire. However, Spanish control was limited and Tipu became a centre of Mayan resistance in the late 1630s. By the 1640s British buccaneers were attacking Spanish ships from havens along Belize’s coast. Some established settlements and traded logwood, then used in dyes. After the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655 they were joined by demobilized British soldiers and sailors.

Spanish attempts to expel the British settlers ended with the defeat of the commander of Yucatán, Arturo O’Neill, at the Battle of St George’s Caye in 1798. Belize was part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ during the 18th century. Logwood and mahogany were harvested by slaves with British Honduras, as it was known, a focal point for Central American trade until the Panama railway was completed in 1855. In 1862 British Honduras was declared a British colony with a Legislative Assembly and a lieutenant-governor under the governor of Jamaica. The administrative connection with Jamaica was severed in 1884.

Belize’s small economy was hit by the depression in the 1930s and the capital, Belize City, was laid waste by a hurricane in Sept. 1931. Widespread protests over unemployment and poor living conditions in the mid-1930s were led by Antonio Soberanis Gómez. The establishment of the General Workers’ Union became one of the foundations of Belize’s nationalist movement after the Second World War. The People’s United Party (PUP), formed in 1950, became the dominant political force under George Price. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1964 and thereafter the majority of the legislature were elected rather than appointed.

The road to independence from Britain was complicated by turbulent relations with Guatemala, which had long claimed Belize as its territory. Price rejected calls for an ‘associated state’ of Guatemala and full independence was achieved on 21 Sept. 1981, prompting Guatemala to threaten war. Price served as Belize’s first prime minister until his party was defeated by the United Democratic Party (UDP) under Manuel Esquivel in Dec. 1984. Guatemala officially recognized Belize as an independent sovereign nation in Sept. 1991. But a border dispute rumbled on, remaining unresolved at the time of Dean Barrow’s election as prime minister in Feb. 2008, following a landslide victory for the UDP.

Territory and Population

Belize is bounded in the north by Mexico, west and south by Guatemala and east by the Caribbean. Fringing the coast there are three atolls and some 400 islets (cays) in the world’s second longest barrier reef (140 miles), which was declared a world heritage site in 1996. Area, 22,965 sq. km.

There are six districts as follows, with area, 2010 census population and chief city:


Area (in sq. km)


Chief City





Belize City





San Ignacio/Santa Elena







Orange Walk



Orange Walk


Stann Creek








Punta Gorda


Population at the 2010 census, 324,528; density, 14·1 per sq. km. Estimate, July 2013: 349,728.

The UN gives a projected population for 2020 of 398,000.

The capital is Belmopan (2010 census population, 13,931). In 2010, 45·0% of the population were urban.

English is the official language. Spanish is widely spoken. In 2010 the main ethnic groups were Mestizo (Spanish-Maya), 49·7%; Creole (African descent), 20·8%; Mayans, 9·9%; and Garifuna (Caribs), 4·6%.

Social Statistics

2009 births (est.), 8,000; deaths (est.), 1,000. In 2009 the estimated birth rate per 1,000 was 25 and the death rate 4; infant mortality in 2010 was 14 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy in 2013 was 70·9 years for males and 77·1 for females. Annual population growth rate, 2005–10, 2·5%; fertility rate, 2013, 2·7 children per woman.


A tropical climate with high rainfall and small annual range of temperature. The driest months are Feb. and March. Belize City, Jan. 74°F (23·3°C), July 81°F (27·2°C). Annual rainfall 76" (1,890 mm).

Constitution and Government

The head of state is the British sovereign, represented by an appointed Governor-General. The Constitution, which came into force on 21 Sept. 1981, provided for a National Assembly, with a five-year term, comprising a 32-member House of Representatives (31 elected by universal suffrage plus the Speaker), and a Senate consisting of 13 members, six appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister, three on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, one on the advice of the Belize Council of Churches and the Evangelical Association of Churches, one on the advice of the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Belize Business Bureau and one on the advice of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize and the Civil Society Steering Committee plus the Senate President.

National Anthem

‘O, Land of the Free’; words by S. A. Haynes, tune by S. W. Young.

Recent Elections

In elections to the House of Representatives held on 4 Nov. 2015 the ruling United Democratic Party won 19 of 31 seats with 50·5% of votes cast and the People’s United Party 12 with 47·8%. Turnout was 72·7%.

Current Government

Governor-General: Sir Colville Young, GCMG; b. 1932 (sworn in 17 Nov. 1993).

In March 2017 the cabinet comprised the following:

Prime Minister, and Minister for Finance and Natural Resources: Dean Barrow; b. 1951 (United Democratic Party/UDP; sworn in 8 Feb. 2008).

Deputy Prime Minister: Patrick Faber (also Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports).

Minister ofDefence: John Saldivar. Economic Development, Petroleum, Investment, Trade and Commerce: Erwin Contreras. Foreign Affairs: Wilfred Elrington. Health: Pablo Marin. Home Affairs: Elodio Aragon, Jr. Housing and Urban Development: Michael Finnegan. Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation: Anthony Martinez. Labour, Local Government and Rural Development: Hugo Patt. Tourism and Civil Aviation: Jose Manuel Heredia, Jr. Works: Rene Montero. Transport and National Emergency Management: Edmond Castro. Attorney General: Michael Peyrefitte.

Ministers of State: Omar Figueroa (for Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Development); Godwin Hulse (for Immigration); Frank Mena (for Public Service, Energy and Public Utilities).

Government Website:

Current Leaders

Dean Barrow


Prime Minister


Dean Barrow, leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), won a landslide victory in the Feb. 2008 general election to become Belize’s first black prime minister. He took office promising to root out corruption, reduce crime and reform the faltering economy. He was returned for a second term in March 2012 and for an unprecedented third in Nov. 2015.

Early Life

Dean Barrow was born on 2 March 1951 in Belize City and was educated at St Michael’s College. He studied law at the University of the West Indies, Barbados, and the Norman Manley Law School in Kingston, Jamaica. He entered the legal profession in 1975, joining his uncle Dean Lindo’s Church Street Chambers in Belize City and becoming a partner in 1977. In the early 1980s he completed a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Miami.

In 1983 Barrow was elected to Belize City council. He successfully contested the Dec. 1984 general election for the UDP, winning the Queen’s Square division. He was appointed attorney general and minister of foreign affairs, serving until 1989 when the UDP lost office. In 1989 Barrow set up with Rodwell Williams the law firm Barrow & Williams which has acted for influential clients including the Belize Bank and Belize Telecommunications Ltd (BTL). In 1990 Barrow became deputy leader of the UDP.

With the UDP victory at the 1993 general election, Barrow returned to his previous posts of attorney general and minister of foreign affairs but also took on responsibility for the national security, immigration and nationality, and media portfolios. This concentration of power attracted some criticism. In 1998, after the UDP lost all but three seats in the general election, Barrow became party head and oversaw the securing of seven seats in the 2003 election.

In opposition, Barrow argued for greater transparency in public finances and advocated building public infrastructure. In the Feb. 2008 general election the UDP upset predictions of a close result to win 25 out of 31 seats. Barrow took office as prime minister on 8 Feb. 2008 and on 11 Feb. announced his new cabinet with himself as minister of finance.

Career in Office

Barrow’s early months in office were dominated by investigations into a financial scandal inherited from the previous administration, involving the alleged misuse of US$20m. of overseas grants. With politicians, the Belize Bank and a health care company all implicated, Barrow requested US assistance to set up an audit. Among his other major challenges were the revitalization of the economy, and implementing a programme to build houses, roads and health centres. The ongoing problem of crime was highlighted in Sept. 2011 as the US government added Belize to a blacklist of countries considered to be producers of or transit routes for illegal drugs. The UDP won the parliamentary election of March 2012 albeit with a reduced majority, giving Barrow a second term in office. The UDP nonetheless won further parliamentary elections in March 2012 and Nov. 2015, extending Barrow’s premiership to a third consecutive term.

In Aug. 2016 Belize’s High Court decriminalized homosexuality, controversially ruling the existing law unconstitutional.


The Belize Defence Force numbers around 1,050 (2011) with 700 reservists. There are three infantry battalions, three reserve companies, a support group and an air wing.

In 2013 defence expenditure totalled US$18m. (US$53 per capita), representing 1·1% of GDP.


In 2011 agriculture accounted for 13% of GDP, industry 23% and services 64%.


Belize is classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank. The largest industries are services, garment production, food processing, tourism, construction and oil. In 2014 sugar and citrus fruits comprised over 50% of total exports, whilst the service sector accounted for 60% of GDP. Other exports include marine products, bananas and papayas. A Commercial Free Zone established in 1994 has seen foreign direct investment substantially increase since 2000. Two tropical storms in 2008 caused damage to agriculture and infrastructure valued at 4·8% of GDP.

Belize weathered the global financial crisis relatively well compared to other Caribbean Community countries. Increased exports of petroleum, citrus fruits and bananas, allied with reduced imports, narrowed the external current account deficit from 6·1% of GDP in 2009 to 3·1% in 2010. GDP growth declined to 1·3% in 2013 owing to a fall in oil production and agricultural output, before rebounding in 2014 to 4·1% as a result of increased agricultural exports and tourist arrivals.

In Feb. 2007 the government restructured 98% of its external debt, worth US$900m., although national debt remains a concern. The government renationalized Belize Telemedia (BTL) and Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) in 2011, prompting Standard & Poor’s international agency to downgrade the country’s sovereign credit rating from ‘B’ to ‘B–’. In Feb. 2012 it was further downgraded to a lowly ‘CCC+’. However, further investment in sugar and non-traditional agricultural products subsequently boosted the economic outlook, resulting in a further rating reclassification to ‘B–/B’ in Nov. 2014.

Annual GDP growth rates had averaged 7% in the 1980s but declined to less than 4% over the period 2000–10. The overall poverty rate rose from 34% in 2002 to 41% in 2009, while unemployment stood at 10·1% in April 2015. The IMF has highlighted improving the business environment and addressing the widening current account deficit as key to stronger growth.


The unit of currency is the Belize dollar (BZD) of 100 cents. Since 1976 $B2 has been fixed at US$1. Total money supply was $B463m. in July 2005 and foreign exchange reserves were US$101m. There was inflation of 1·2% in 2014 but deflation of 0·9% in 2015.


Revenues in 2011–12 were $B843·6m. and expenditures $B889·8m. Tax revenues accounted for 81·5% of total revenues; current expenditure accounted for 82·0% of total expenditures.

A Goods and Services Tax (GST) was introduced in July 2006, initially of 10% and since April 2010 of 12·5%.


Real GDP growth was 1·3% in 2013, 4·1% in 2014 and 1·0% in 2015. Total GDP in 2015 was US$1·8bn.

Banking and Finance

A Central Bank was established in 1981 (Governor, Joy Grant). In 2014 there were five commercial banks, not including offshore banks. Three were based in Belize (Atlantic Bank, Belize Bank and Heritage Bank) and two were multinational banks with branches in Belize (FirstCaribbean International Bank and Scotiabank). The oldest and largest bank is Belize Bank.

External debt was US$1,249m. in 2013.

Energy and Natural Resources


Carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of energy were the equivalent of 1·5 tonnes per capita in 2011.


Installed capacity in 2011 was 144,000 kW. Production was 322m. kWh in 2011 and consumption per capita 1,558 kWh.

Oil and Gas

After several years of exploration, oil was discovered in 2005 by Belize Natural Energy. It is the only company producing oil in Belize. Production of crude oil was 4,300 bbls per day in 2010.


In 2013 there were an estimated 78,000 ha. of arable land and 32,000 ha. of permanent crops. Output, 2013 (in 1,000 tonnes): sugarcane, 1,078; oranges (estimate), 230; bananas (estimate), 102; maize, 72. Livestock (2013 estimates): cattle, 114,000; pigs, 22,000; sheep, 13,000; horses, 6,000; mules, 5,000; chickens, 1·6m.


In 2010, 1·40m. ha. (61% of the total land area) were under forests. Timber production in 2011 was 167,000 cu. metres.


The total catch in 2012 amounted to 149,806 tonnes, exclusively from sea fishing.


Manufacturing is mainly confined to processing agricultural products and timber. There is also a clothing industry. Sugar production in 2006 was 113,000 tonnes; molasses, 42,000 tonnes.


The labour force in 2013 was 149,600 (100,800 in 2003). 68·3% of the population aged 15–64 was economically active in 2013. In the same year 11·7% of the population was unemployed.

International Trade

Imports and Exports

Merchandise imports in 2014 totalled US$1,004·3m. (US$931·2m. in 2013) and merchandise exports US$359·1m. (US$411·4m. in 2013).

Principal imports in 2014 were food, animals and beverages (21·7%) followed by machinery and transport equipment (21·4%); main exports in 2014 were food, animals and beverages (55·5%) followed by mineral fuels and lubricants (16·3%).

The leading import supplier in 2010 was the USA (47·9%), followed by Mexico and China; the leading export destination in 2010 was the USA (49·1%), followed by the UK and Costa Rica.



In 2006 there were 575 km of main roads and 2,432 km of other roads. There were 40,000 passenger cars in use in 2006 and 14,800 trucks and vans. In 2006 there were 68 deaths as a result of road accidents.

Civil Aviation

There is an international airport (Philip S. W. Goldson) in Belize City. The national carrier is Maya Island Air, which in 2003 operated domestic services and international flights to Flores (Guatemala). There were direct flights in 2003 with other airlines to Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, McAllen, Miami, Montego Bay, New York, Raleigh, San Pedro Sula, San Salvador and Washington, D.C. In 2013 Philip S. W. Goldson International handled 542,833 passengers (449,291 in 2008).


The main port is Belize City, with a modern deep-water port able to handle containerized shipping. There are also ports at Commerce Bight and Big Creek. In Jan. 2014 there were 409 ships of 300 GT or over registered, totalling 1,570,000 GT. Of the 409 vessels registered, 288 were general cargo ships, 52 bulk carriers, 47 oil tankers, 11 passenger ships, six container ships and five liquid gas tankers. Belize is a ‘flag of convenience’ country.


In 2011 there were 28,800 landline telephone subscriptions (equivalent to 90·7 per 1,000 inhabitants) and 203,100 mobile phone subscriptions (or 638·7 per 1,000 inhabitants). Fixed internet subscriptions totalled 9,400 in 2010 (30·1 per 1,000 inhabitants).

Social Institutions


Each of the six judicial districts has summary jurisdiction courts (criminal) and district courts (civil), both of which are presided over by magistrates. There are a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeal and a Family Court. There are a Director of Public Prosecutions, a Chief Justice and two Puisne Judges. Belize was one of ten countries to sign an agreement in Feb. 2001 establishing a Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to replace the British Privy Council as the highest civil and criminal court. In the meantime the number of signatories has risen to 12. The court was inaugurated at Port of Spain, Trinidad on 16 April 2005. Belize became the third country to abolish appeals to the Privy Council and accept the CCJ as its court of last resort in June 2010.

The population in penal institutions in Dec. 2012 was 1,562 (476 per 100,000 of national population). Belize’s prison population rate ranks in the top ten in the world. Belize was ranked 97th of 102 countries for criminal justice and 64th for civil justice in the 2015 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which provides data on how the rule of law is experienced by the general public across eight categories.


The adult literacy rate was 76·9% in 2003 (76·7% among males and 77·1% among females). Education is in English. State education is managed jointly by the government and the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It is compulsory for children between five and 14 years and primary education is free. In 2008–09 there were 53,000 pupils at primary schools and 32,000 at secondary schools. There are two government-maintained schools for children with special needs. There is a teacher training college. The University College of Belize opened in 1986. The University of the West Indies maintains an extramural department in Belize City.

In 2009 public expenditure on education came to 6·1% of GDP. Expenditure on education was 18·7% of total government spending in 2008.


In 2006 there were 11 hospitals with 12 beds per 10,000 persons. There were 263 physicians, 12 dentists, 441 nurses and 46 pharmacists. Medical services in rural areas are provided by health care centres and mobile clinics.

In Water: At What Cost? The State of the World’s Water 2016, WaterAid reported that 0·5% of the population does not have access to safe water.


In 2010 there were an estimated 160,000 Roman Catholics and 110,000 Protestants according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, with the remainder of the population being unaffiliated or following other religions.


World Heritage Sites

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.


There are no daily newspapers although there were eight non-dailies in 2008, the largest of which were Belize Times, The Amandala Press and The Reporter.


There were 716 hotels and 7,111 hotel rooms in 2011. In 2012 there were 917,869 visitors of which 277,135 stayed overnight and 640,734 arrived on cruise ships.


The Belize Carnival is celebrated in the week before Lent begins, with particularly extravagant celebrations in San Pedro. There is also a series of Lobsterfests (at which lobsters prepared in many different ways are consumed) held at different venues throughout June and July. 10 Sept. is St George’s Caye Day, held in memory of the defeat of Spanish forces in 1798 and including a battle re-enactment. National Independence Day follows on 21 Sept.

Diplomatic Representatives

Of Belize in the United Kingdom (3rd Floor, 45 Crawford Pl., London, W1H 4LP)

High Commissioner: Perla Maria Perdomo.

Of the United Kingdom in Belize (North Ring Rd/Melhado Parade, PO Box 91, Belmopan, Belize)

High Commissioner: Peter Hughes, OBE.

Of Belize in the USA (2535 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., 20008)

Ambassador: Patrick Andrews.

Of the USA in Belize (Floral Park Rd, Belmopan, Cayo)

Ambassador: Vacant.

Chargé d’Affaires a.i.: Adrienne Galanek.

Of Belize to the United Nations

Ambassador: Lois Michele Young.

Of Belize to the European Union

Ambassador: Dylan Vernon.

Further Reading

  1. Leslie, Robert, (ed.) A History of Belize: Nation in the Making. 3rd ed. 1997Google Scholar
  2. Shoman, Assad, Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize. 1994Google Scholar
  3. Sutherland, Anne, The Making of Belize: Globalization in the Margins. 1998Google Scholar
  4. Twigg, Alan, Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide. 2006Google Scholar
  5. National Statistical Office: Statistical Institute of Belize, 1902 Constitution Drive, Belmopan.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2018

Personalised recommendations