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Government fiscal problems and corruption scandals sparked social protests in 2007, and public support for Prime Minister Said Musa’s People’s United Party (PUP) plummeted as the country headed toward the 2008 elections. Additional challenges during the year included a destructive hurricane season and the rise of violent crime.
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 but remained a member of the Commonwealth. The government has since changed hands a number of times, alternating between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People’s United Party (PUP).
Prime Minister Said Wilbert Musa of the PUP was initially elected in 1998, and he became the country’s first prime minister to secure a consecutive term after the PUP won again in 2003. However, the opposition UDP swept the 2006 local elections amid public dissatisfaction with corruption scandals, increased taxation, and rising crime rates. In 2007, the prime minister’s authority was further damaged by continuing divisions within his party and additional evidence of fiscal mismanagement.
Public protests broke out in February 2007, recalling a period of civil unrest in 2005. The demonstrations were focused on a variety of issues, including education, corruption, and the national budget. The Musa administration’s plan to take over the private debt of Universal Health Services was particularly controversial. Also in February, the government finally succeeded in renegotiating Belize’s national debt, which stood at 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The amount was not reduced, but the repayment schedule and the size of payments were eased. Attempts to impose tighter fiscal measures had resulted in public protests and strikes in recent years; rioting over a series of unpopular new taxes had left at least one person dead in 2005.
Electoral politics also escalated in 2007 ahead of the scheduled 2008 elections, the funding of which became a cause for concern. Politicians were accused of using public funds to finance campaigns, and in September 2007, three smaller parties united to form the Alliance of the Reform Movement, which called on the public to help halt campaign finance and other abuses by the government. The Alliance also proposed a whistleblowers’ protection act to prevent reprisals against those who reported abuses by public officials.
Belize’s economy suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Dean, which struck in late August 2007 and left some 2,000 people homeless, mostly in rural northern Belize. The storm caused an estimated US$107 million in damage, including the destruction of crops such as papaya and sugarcane.
The discovery of oil deposits in Belize’s western border region in 2006 raised hopes of substantial future earnings for the country, traditionally an oil importer. However, the discovery has also sparked environmental and corruption concerns. Belize in 2006 joined Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, which continued to supply the majority of the country’s oil on favorable financing terms in 2007. Venezuela and Belize in 2006 also created a joint venture to search for additional Belizean reserves.
Belize is a member of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), a U.S. trade agreement that provides duty-free access to U.S. markets for most goods. The CBI is set to expire in September 2008 but is likely to be extended. The United States is Belize’s top trading partner.
While Belize and Guatemala made progress in resolving their long-standing border dispute in 2005 and 2006, tensions rose in 2007 over the settlement of 134 Guatemalan citizens in the community of Santa Rosa, on Belizean territory. The Organization of American States (OAS) has ordered the relocation of the community to Guatemalan territory and continues to facilitate related negotiations. In September 2007, the OAS issued a report calling the settlers’ status the last remaining obstacle to more substantive bilateral discussions on a host of important issues.
Belize is an electoral democracy. The head of state is the British monarch, represented by a governor-general. The 29-seat House of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly, is elected for five-year terms. The 12 members of the Senate are appointed to five-year terms, with 6 appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, 3 on the advice of the opposition leader, and 3 on the advice of major civil society groups. There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, and the interests of Mestizo, Creole, Mayan, and Garifuna ethnic groups are represented in the National Assembly. The country’s major parties are 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. While the government initiated a U.S.-sponsored computerized system to check passports in 2005, the passport and birth certificate problems have both reportedly continued. Belize was ranked 99 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Belize has an open media environment, although laws allow for some government control. The government may imprison (for up to three years) or fine (up to US$2,500) journalists or others who criticize the financial disclosures of government officials. The Belize Broadcasting Authority has the right to prior restraint of all broadcasts for national security or national emergency reasons. However, the government has not moved against journalists or invoked these rights for many years.
Although Belize has no daily newspapers, there are 10 weeklies, including 2 supported directly by political parties. Belize has 10 radio stations and two television networks, along with a variety of cable outlets. Internet penetration is the second highest in Central America, after Costa Rica, with nearly 20 percent of the population connected.
While there were no direct threats to journalists in 2007, the Belize Times newspaper in February was ordered to pay US$20,000, the third highest award in the country’s legal history, in a defamation case brought by attorney Lois Young Barrow and her former husband, opposition leader Dean Barrow. In general, however, Belizean media are notable for their diversity of opinion, and there is 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 ranks shrink, Belize has a number of well-organized and politically influential unions that represent a cross-section of workers. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate disputes, and businesses are penalized for labor code violations. However, the government has done little to improve the regulation of antiunion discrimination, and workers who are fired for union organizing rarely receive reparations.
The judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is generally respected. Despite an increase in crime, the heavy backlog of cases has decreased recently because of the dismissal of several cases. About 21.7 percent of the prison population is currently awaiting trial. 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.
Violent crime, money laundering, and drug trafficking continued unabated in 2007 due to insufficient countermeasures and government corruption. The country’s murder rate has risen steadily since 1997, with 97 homicides reported in 2007, up from 49 in 2006.
According to a global ranking by the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the 12th-highest prison-to-public ratio, with about 461 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons do not meet minimum standards, although the Hattieville Prison was privatized and is run by a nonprofit foundation that has improved conditions somewhat. There have been investigations into the brutalization of inmates by prison authorities, and at least three senior prison officers have been dismissed over brutality and bribery allegations.
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 it is allocated limited resources. 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 the prevalence of child labor. Child laborers are overwhelmingly employed in the agricultural sector. Belize’s rising HIV/AIDS rate was also a cause for concern in 2007, and according to UNAIDS, the adult HIV prevalence rate has reached about 2.4 percent. Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor. After receiving the poorest ranking (Tier 3) in the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, Belize implemented a short-term plan proposed by the United States, including intensified intelligence gathering, unannounced raids, assistance to victims of trafficking, and a public information and education campaign. In February 2007, the authorities arrested three police officers for involvement in human smuggling. The U.S. State Department’s 2007 report upgraded Belize to Tier 2, but human trafficking remains a major challenge facing the country.