Belize, independent state, northeastern Central America, bounded on the north and northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. Belize, until 1973 known as British Honduras, became independent in 1981 and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The total area of Belize is 22,965 sq km (8867 sq mi).
Land and Resources
The northern half of Belize consists of lowlands, large areas of which are swampy. The southern half is dominated by mountain ranges, notably the Maya Mountains, which rise to a maximum elevation of 1122 m (3681 ft) atop Victoria Peak. The Caribbean coastline is fringed by coral barrier reefs and numerous cays (islets). The principal streams are the Belize River; the Hondo River, which forms much of the boundary with Mexico; and the Sarstoon River, which forms the southwestern boundary with Guatemala. The climate of Belize is subtropical, moderated by sea breezes along the coast. The average annual temperature is about 26.1° C (about 79° F). The total annual rainfall increases from north to south and averages about 1800 mm (about 71 in). A rainy season extends from May to February.
Slightly less than half the area of Belize is covered by forests. Deciduous trees are found in the north; tropical hardwood trees predominate in the south. Principal species include the commercially important mahogany, cedar, and rosewood, as well as pine, oak, and palms. Mangrove swamp vegetation is found along the coast. Wildlife includes jaguar, deer, tapir, and numerous species of birds and reptiles.
Population and Education
The majority of the population of Belize is of mixed racial descent. The largest group is of black or partly black ancestry. Other groups include Native Americans, principally Carib and Mayan, located in the north and west; people of European descent, mainly English and Spanish; and people of mixed Native American-European descent.
The population of Belize is 203,957 (1993 estimate). The overall density of about 9 persons per sq km (about 23 per sq mi) is the lowest in Central America. Population is concentrated in a few principal urban centers, of which Belize City (population, 1988 estimate, 49,671) is the largest; it is also the principal port. Belmopan (1988 estimate, 3694), a newly constructed city, supplanted Belize City as the official capital in 1972. English is the official language; other languages spoken include Carib, Mayan, Spanish, and a Creole dialect of English. More than half the people are Roman Catholic, and most of the remainder are Protestant.
Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. In the late 1980s some 39,800 pupils were enrolled in primary schools, and about 7300 students were enrolled in secondary schools. Higher education is available at colleges in Belize City and Corozal. The literacy rate of more than 90 percent is one of the highest in Latin America.
Belize is governed under a constitution that became effective at independence in 1981. The British sovereign is head of state and is represented by a governor-general, who has little power. Executive power is mainly exercised by a cabinet of ministers, led by a prime minister. The bicameral National Assembly consists of a Senate of 8 appointed members and a House of Representatives of 28 members elected by universal suffrage to terms of up to five years. The prime minister must have the support of a majority of the members of the House. The leading political parties are the People's United party (1950) and the United Democratic party (1974).
The main economic resource is the arable land, only a small fraction of which is under cultivation. Agricultural exports include sugar, citrus fruits, and bananas. Rice, beans, and corn are grown as subsistence crops. Lumbering, formerly the chief economic activity, has declined in importance. Major manufactures are processed food, wood products, and clothing. A road network of about 3000 km (about 1865 mi) links the major urban centers, but some areas remain inaccessible. An international airport serves Belize City. The unit of currency is the Belize dollar (2 Belize dollars equal U.S.$1; 1990). In the late 1980s annual exports earned about $119.2 million, and imports cost about $160.7 million. The annual budget included about $64.2 million in revenue and about $89.4 million in expenditure.
In pre-Columbian times Belize was part of the territory of the Maya. It was included in the viceroyalty of New Spain in the 1500s, and sometime later English woodcutters from Jamaica established a settlement on the Belize River. During the wars between England and Spain in the 1700s, Spain failed to dislodge the British from the area. In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region; it was declared a British colony, subordinate to Jamaica, in 1862 and an independent crown colony in 1884.
Long-range constitutional reforms were initiated by the British in 1954, resulting in a new constitution ten years later. Progress toward independence, however, was hampered by an old Guatemalan claim to sovereignty over the territory. When Belize finally attained full independence on September 21, 1981, Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation; about 1500 British troops remained to protect Belize from the Guatemalan threat. Prime Minister George Price of the United party, who had led the country to independence, was replaced by Manuel Esquivel when Belize held its first national elections, on December 14, 1984. Price returned to power after the elections of September 1989. In May 1993 Great Britain announced that it would end its military involvement in Belize. All British troops would evacuate the country by October 1994. Esquivel regained the prime ministership in June 1993 elections. In July Esquivel announced the suspension of a pact reached with Guatemala during Price's prime ministership, claiming Price had made too many concessions in order to gain Guatemalan recognition. The pact would have resolved a 130-year-old border dispute between the two countries.