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In 2004, Belize continued to become more active with regional and international political and economic initiatives seeking to better integrate the country into the global economy, while still trying to tackle violent crime, corruption, and drug trafficking problems.
Belize achieved independence in 1981 and is a member of the British Commonwealth. The government has changed hands three times, alternating between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left PUP. In 1993, the UDP and the National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR) formed a coalition, winning 16 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives.
The August 1998 parliamentary elections, in which the PUP won 26 of 29 seats, proved to be a referendum on Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel's largely unfulfilled pledge that his UDP would create jobs. Musa, the new prime minister and former attorney general, promised adherence to international treaties on indigenous and women's rights. However, his government later blocked efforts by Indian groups to make claims of their land rights before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Belize's ruling PUP returned to power with an overwhelming victory in the March 2003 parliamentary election. The PUP captured 22 seats in the House of Representatives, ratifying Musa's mandate.
In December 2004, Prime Minister Said Musa of the People's United Party (PUP) reshuffled his cabinet, affecting all but the deputy prime minister and the finance minister. According to a government press release, the changes were made "in keeping with government's commitment to good governance and the streamlining of operations..."
In September 2002, the government proposed a constitutional amendment to end appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. The Belize Court of Appeals would be established as the final court of appeals for cases carrying a mandatory death sentence. Despite a moratorium on executions since 1985, there is concern that a change in the law could lead to a resumption of capital punishment. The legislation had not been passed by the end of November 2004 and appeals to the Privy Council continue to be possible. In July 2004, the government failed to get parliamentary approval for constitutional changes that would allow Belize to fully participate in the Caribbean Court of Justice.
In recent years, Belize has experienced increases in the rates of violent crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Soldiers of the Belize Defence Force routinely participate in joint patrols with the police in an effort to reduce violent crime. Corruption and fraud involving nationality applications and passport processing continue to haunt the Immigration and Nationality Department. In August 2004, the prime minister announced full disclosure for all public sector loans, loan guarantees and obligations for government, and statutory boards. The Minister of Home Affairs and Investment announced the introduction of machine-readable passports by January 2005, along with heightened visa requirements in order to prevent illegal entry into the country.
In February 2004, the United Kingdom's Privy Council approved the construction of the Chalillo dam, opposed by indigenous and environmental groups.
Citizens of Belize can change their government democratically. The 29-seat House of Representatives is elected for a five-year term. Members of the Senate are appointed: 5 by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, 2 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and 1 by the Belize Advisory Council. There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, and there are Mestizo, Creole, Maya, and Garifuna parties in parliament.
Belize was ranked 60 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The mostly English-language press is free to publish a variety of political viewpoints, including those critical of the government, and there are Spanish-language media. However, there are certain judicial restrictions on freedom of the press, including prison terms for those who question the validity of financial disclosure statements submitted by public officials. Belize has 10 privately owned newspapers, 3 of which are subsidized by major political parties. There are 11 private commercial radio stations and 2 private television stations, along with several cable systems. An independent board oversees operations of the government-owned outlets.
Belizeans enjoy freedom of religion. There is full academic freedom in Belize.
A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active in social, economic, and environmental areas. Freedom of assembly is generally respected. Labor unions are independent and well organized and have the right to strike, but the percentage of the workforce that is organized has declined. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate disputes, and businesses are penalized for failing to abide by the labor code.
The judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is generally respected. In the past, judges and the director of public prosecutions negotiated the renewal of their employment contracts, which made them vulnerable to political influence. Judges now serve until their mandatory retirement at 65. Lengthy backlogs of trials are due, in part, to the high turnover of judges, which is the result of their low pay. Cases often continue for years while defendants are free on bail. Reports of police misconduct are investigated by the department's internal affairs office or by an ombudsman's office. Extrajudicial killing and use of excessive force are the country's primary rights concerns.
Prisons do not meet minimum standards, although the Hattieville Prison was privatized and is run by a nonprofit foundation that has made some progress in improving the physical conditions of inmates. Drug trafficking and gang conflicts have contributed to an increase in crime. An antinarcotics agreement was signed with the United States in September 2002. Projects aimed at suppressing the cultivation, processing, and trafficking of drugs, curbing violent crime, and eliminating money laundering are priorities. The United States has provided Belize with counter-narcotics and law enforcement assistance, including equipment and training for the police department's counter-narcotics unit, and training for the Department of Immigration, the Customs and Excise Department, and the magistrate and supreme courts. In June 2004, the government announced the introduction of legislation formalizing a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States that was signed four years ago.
The government actively discourages racial and ethnic discrimination. Although the Maya claim to be the original inhabitants of Belize, the government has designated only 77,000 acres as Mayan preserves out of the 500,000 acres claimed. Most of the indigenous population lives in the South, the poorest part of the country. The Belize Human Rights Commission is independent and effective. Human rights concerns include the conditions of migrant workers and refugees from neighboring countries and charges of labor abuses by Belizean employers. Most of the estimated 40,000 Spanish speakers who have immigrated to the largely English-speaking country since the 1980s do not have legal status. Undocumented Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran workers, especially in the service and agricultural sectors, continue to be exploited. Chinese and Indian nationals have been found to be working as bonded labor.
The majority of women working in brothels are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In May 2003, the U.S. State Department listed Belize as a candidate for sanctions because of its failure to control human trafficking. Violence against women and children is a serious problem. In September 2004, the government introduced an 11-year Plan of Action for Children and Adolescents aimed at promoting education, health, child protection, HIV/AIDS education, family, and culture.