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During 2005, Belize weathered what many experts said was the worst civil turmoil since the nation's independence. Unpopular taxes, a debt crisis, corruption scandals, and a series of strikes led to significant unrest, and the army was called out in the streets to quell rioting. However, despite these problems, opposition groups and the government sparred peacefully to find solutions to the problems.
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 and is a member of the Commonwealth. The government has changed hands three times, alternating between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People's United Party (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 current prime minister, Said Wilbert Musa, was first elected in 1998, when the PUP won 26 seats in the House of Representatives. He was elected again in 2003, with the PUP taking 22 seats.
In response to various scandals, Musa reshuffled his cabinet in December 2004, keeping only the deputy prime minister and the finance minister. As one of the sources of government corruption had been the illegal sales of passports, Belize instituted a new computerized checking system for passports in 2005, after receiving a grant of $1 million from the United States to upgrade the system. Passports from Belize had become a favorite tool of drug traffickers in the region.
Belize is also a preferred place for money laundering by drug traffickers. In 2005, Spanish police broke up one drug ring that had used Belize to launder some of its $123 million in drug revenues. 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. The United Nations formally complimented Belize in 2005 for its antidrug efforts.
The government's problems with popular unrest began in January 2005 when it attempted to privatize the national phone company. Communication workers went on strike, urging other labor groups to follow suit. In the spring, the country's telecom system and electrical grid failed on several occasions. Musa blamed the problems on sabotage from striking workers. Patrick Faber, an opposition member of the House of Representatives, was arrested for aggravated assault when he attempted to gain entrance to a strike-related student forum at the University of Belize that was closed to all but students. Police arrested Faber after a scuffle.
In April, a series of unpopular new taxes-a result of the country's debt crisis- sparked rioting that left at least one person dead and 100 in jail. The riots were so violent that the army had to be used to restore order. Belize owes $1.25 billion in loans, a debt that is larger than the country's gross domestic product of $1.1 billion. The government accused student groups and labor unions of fomenting the civil unrest. After the government quelled the rioters, Musa turned to the International Monetary Fund to negotiate adjustments in debt payments. Opposition politicians said the country's frustrations with corruption had led to these violent outbursts and called for the Musa government to step aside.
As a compromise with striking workers and the opposition, the government agreed to reacquire some privatized industries such as the water service. Privatized industries that hiked the cost for services and skyrocketing fuel prices had also caused frustration with the government during the spring riots.
Citizens of Belize can change their government democratically. In the bicameral National Assembly, the 29-seat House of Representatives is elected for a five-year term. Members of the Senate are appointed for five-year terms: 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 Mestizo, Creole, Maya, and Garifuna parties have seats in the National Assembly. The country's major parties include the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People's United Party (PUP)
Government corruption scandals have included the illegal sale of passports and bad loans made by the country's social security board. Belize was ranked 62 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Belize has a free and open media system, although laws allow for some government control. The government may imprison (for up to three years) or fine (up to $2,500) journalists or others who write in a critical way about the public financial disclosures of government officials. The Belize Broadcasting Authority also has the right to prior restraint of all broadcasts for national security reasons for reasons of national emergency. However, the government has not moved against journalists or invoked these rights for many years.
Although Belize has no daily newspapers, the country is a lively market for weeklies, with 10, including 2 supported directly by political parties, circulating nationally or regionally. Belize also has 10 radio stations, some which are networked nationally, and 2 television networks, along with a variety of cable outlets. There were no direct threats to journalists in 2005-a change from 2003, when investigative reporter Melvin Flores fled to the United States after receiving threats in response to his reports on corruption. The media scene was notable for its diversity of opinions with little or no fear of government reprisal for criticism.
There is full freedom of religion in Belize. Likewise, there is full academic freedom.
A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active in social, economic, and environmental areas. Freedom of assembly is generally respected.
Although labor unions have seen their numbers shrink, in 2005 they exerted their power with coordinated strikes by public workers and teachers. The well-orga-nized labor unions have demonstrated that they can use their right to strike to paralyze the country if necessary to make a point. 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. 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. Under a bilateral antinarcotics agreement signed in September 2002, the United States provides 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.
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 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 2005, the U.S. State Department criticized Belize for its weak prosecution against human trafficking. Violence against women and children is a serious problem. However, in 2005, the United Nations praised the government for a new public awareness campaign to curb such violence.