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During 2006, Belize experienced a decrease in the civil unrest that had characterized the country in the previous year. Major challenges, such as corruption scandals, the debt crisis, human trafficking, and violent crime, continued to confront the country, although the government took steps to address several of these concerns.
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).
The current prime minister, Said Wilbert Musa, was first elected in 1998, when the PUP won 26 seats in the House of Representatives. Musa was reelected in 2003, which was the first time in the country’s history that an incumbent was elected to a second consecutive term, and the PUP took 22 seats in the House of Representatives. However, the Musa government was handed a defeat in early 2006, when the opposition UDP captured a majority of seats in all local elections. The UDP’s victory at the local level meant that the party’s leader, Dean Barrow, did not step down; he will probably challenge Musa in the 2008 presidential elections. The PUP’s defeat in local elections is a likely result of public dissatisfaction with corruption scandals, increased taxation, and growing crime rates since Musa’s reelection. Polls conducted late in 2005 also indicated that support for the current administration is weak, with only 20 percent of those polled approving of the Musa presidency.
Despite moves to counter allegations of corruption, the Musa administration continued to be faced with the issue in 2006, and allegations fueled discontent with the government. While the government used a U.S.-sponsored computerized system, initiated in 2005, to check passports, reports in 2006 indicated that blank Belizean passports continued to go missing from the Immigration and Nationality Department and that there were illegal sales of Belizean birth certificates.
Concerns about the country’s debt burden, which is estimated at nearly $2 billion, continued to plague the Musa administration during the year. In response, the government announced plans to restructure Belize’s nearly $1 billion in external debt and to impose tighter fiscal measures and budget cuts. However, following a series of public protests and strikes, the government agreed to modify the budget proposals and to grant promised pay increases; in 2005, a series of unpopular new taxes that were the result of the debt crisis had sparked rioting that left at least one person dead. Privatization also remained an important issue in 2006, as protests continued over the privatization of the telecom industry. Reports of the future re-privatization of the water industry raised concerns about the potential for irregular government actions.
Human trafficking became a major issue in Belize in 2006, when the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report ranked Belize a Tier 3 country, signifying that it is not in compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons as outlined by U.S. legislation. The cabinet responded by agreeing to implement a short-term plan proposed by the United States, which resulted in intensified intelligence gathering, unannounced raids, assistance to victims of trafficking, and a public information and education campaign. Belize was later removed from the Tier 3 list after taking such actions; however, a strategic plan is being created to improve the compliance of the U.S. 2003 Trafficking in Persons Act, as such trafficking remains a major challenge facing the country.
Drug trafficking continued to be a problem in Belize. The U.S. State Department reported that drug transit through Belize has increased as a result of insufficient counternarcotics efforts and internal government corruption. Few advances toward curbing money laundering were made in 2006, as the resources allocated to investigate the issue remained insufficient. Violent crime also continued unabated. In 2005, Belize had one of the highest murder rates in the Caribbean, with roughly 27 murders per 100,000 people.
Oil became a crucial issue in 2006, when commercial-quality crude oil was discovered in Belize’s western border region. Estimates indicate that these reserves would be able to produce up to 50 million barrels of crude oil, which could represent substantial future earnings for this traditional oil-importing nation. However, the discovery has aroused concern on the part of civil society activists regarding environmental implications of oil extraction and the provocation of illegal activities. Belize also signed an agreement with Venezuela’s PetroCaribe in 2006, which has agreed to supply the majority of Belize’s oil on advantageous financing terms. Until the 2006 agreement, the United States supplied the majority of Belize’s oil, and skeptics now contend that the deal with PetroCaribe is the country’s move to join other politically left-leaning countries in the region.
Belize and Guatemala improved relations over their long-standing border dispute in 2006. The countries participated in a series of meetings as part of an agreement signed in 2005 requiring that they identify issues and laws that are to be the subjects of negotiation, establish their positions, and seek to resolve their differences when possible. Currently, the countries are discussing issues of commerce, tourism, development, infrastructure, security, justice, immigration, and maritime matters.
Belize is an electoral democracy. The current head of state is the Queen of Belize, Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and is represented by the governor-general. Parliament is bicameral. In the bicameral National Assembly, the 29-seat House of Representatives is elected for a five-year term. The 12 members of the Senate are also appointed to five-year terms with 6 appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, 3 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and 3 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 UDP and the center-left PUP.
Government corruption scandals have included the illegal sale of passports and birth certificates and bad loans made by the country’s social security board. Belize was ranked 66 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 or 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. Internet access is the second highest in Central America, after Costa Rica, with nearly 20 percent of people having an internet connection. There were no direct threats to journalists in 2006, and the Belizean media are notable for their diversity of opinions, with little or no fear of government reprisal for criticism.
There is full freedom of religion in Belize. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active in social, economic, and environmental areas.
Although labor unions have seen their numbers shrink, Belize has a number of well-organized unions that represent a cross-section of workers. In recent years, unions have demonstrated their leverage over Belizean politics. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate disputes, and businesses are penalized for failing to abide by the labor codes. However, the government has done little to improve the regulation of antiunion discrimination, and in practice, receiving reparations for dismissal on grounds of union organizing is extremely rare.
The judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is generally respected. Lengthy backlogs of trials continue; however, recently the backlog of cases has decreased, despite an increase in crime, because of the dismissal of several cases. Cases are often prolonged 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 among the country’s primary human 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 within Hattieville have contributed to an increase in crime. There have been investigations into the brutalization of prisoners by prison authorities, and at least three senior prison officers have been dismissed as a result of allegations of brutality and bribery.
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, and no recent action has been taken regarding the 500,000 acres of disputed land. Most of the indigenous population lives in the south, the poorest part of the country. The Belize Human Rights Commission is independent and effective, although the commission is allocated limited resources and there has been discussion in Parliament about dissolving the ombudsman position.
Most of the estimated 40,000 Spanish speakers who have immigrated to this 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, and the majority of women working in brothels are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does human trafficking.