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Dean Barrow took office as prime minister in February 2008 after his United Democratic Party ousted the ruling People’s United Party in national elections, but he was soon criticized for introducing amendments to the constitution that would, among other things, authorize arbitrary detentions and expand government wiretapping. Additional challenges during the year included rising food prices, a destructive hurricane season, and a continued increase in 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).
The ruling PUP was overwhelmingly defeated in February 2008 elections, taking some 41 percent of the vote. The UDP, led by Dean Barrow, secured almost 57 percent of the ballots and 25 out of 31 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. Smaller parties won a combined 2 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was lower than in the last elections, but the voting was determined to be free and fair.
The new government sued Belize Bank over the disputed funds, claiming that the previous administration had made agreements on illegal grounds and without the approval of the National Assembly.
In April the Barrow government proposed a sixth amendment to the constitution that would allow for wiretapping and preventative detention. Opponents of the bill argued that it could easily be abused. The bill also provided the government with the right to seize property if mineral resources are discovered on it. The measure was passed by the National Assembly in August, and the government then sought a decision from the Supreme Court on whether the amendment could become law without a national referendum, which was ordinarily required. The bill was still under consideration at year’s end.
Less than a year after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Dean, Belize was hit by Tropical Storm Arthur in May 2008. The storm caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, and seven people were reported dead. Food security was also an area of concern in 2008. By the end of the first quarter, the price of flour had risen by more than 40 percent and businesses were experiencing shortages. In September, the government announced the creation of a new mechanism to disburse US$2 million in food subsidies.
The discovery of oil deposits in Belize’s western border region in 2006 raised hopes of future earnings as well as concerns about the environment and corruption. Belize in 2006 joined Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, which continued to supply the majority of the country’s oil on favorable financing terms in 2008. Venezuela and Belize in 2006 also created a joint venture to search for additional Belizean reserves, and in September 2008 the country signed an offshore exploration deal with Taiwan’s state-owned oil company.
After two years of progress on their long-standing border dispute, tensions between Belize and Guatemala rose in 2007 over the settlement of 134 Guatemalan citizens in a community on Belizean territory. On December 8, 2008, Guatemala and Belize signed a historic agreement at the Organization of American States to take the border dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Belize is an electoral democracy. The head of state is the British monarch, represented by a governor-general. The 31-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 six appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, three on the advice of the opposition leader, and three 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 system to check passports in 2005, the document fraud problems have reportedly continued. In October 2008, Belize City mayor Zenaida Moya was ordered by the Ministry of Local Government to pay back nearly US$90,000 that she had misappropriated between March 2006 and September 2008, but the money had not yet been paid back at year’s end.Belize was ranked 109 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Belize has an open media environment, although the law allows for some government control. The authorities 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, thought these laws have not been applied in recent years. According to the U.S. State Department, two reporters were attacked in their homes shortly after speaking out against government corruption in 2007. In general, however, Belizean media are notable for their diversity of opinion, and there is little fear of government reprisal for criticism. The Belize Broadcasting Authority has the right, albeit rarely invoked, to prior restraint of all broadcasts for national security or emergency reasons. Belize has one daily newspaper and 10 weeklies, including two that are supported directly by political parties. There are 10 radio stations and two television networks, along with a variety of cable outlets. Internet penetration is the second highest in Central America.
There is full freedom of religion in Belize, and academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active, and Belize’s labor unions remain politically influential despite their shrinking ranks. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate disputes, and businesses are penalized for labor-code violations. However, the government has done little to combat antiunion discrimination, and workers who are fired for 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 decreased in 2007 because of several dismissals. However, the proportion of inmates awaiting trial rose to 23.5 percent in 2008, from 21.7 percent in 2007. 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 2008 due to insufficient countermeasures and government corruption. The country’s murder rate has risen steadily since 1997, with 103 homicides reported in 2008, up from 97 homicides reported in 2007, and 49 in 2006.
According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the 12th-highest prison-to-public ratio, with about 468 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons do not meet minimum standards, although the Hattieville Prison is now 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 prison occupancy level is at 86 percent.
The government actively discourages racial and ethnic discrimination. Although the Mayans 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.
Most of the estimated 40,000 Spanish-speaking immigrants in the country lack legal status, and undocumented workers 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 in agriculture. In an effort to combat child abuse, the National Committee of Families and Children proposed amendments to the Sex and Prohibition Act in 2008, but sexual offenses against minors are on the rise. According to UNAIDS, the growing adult HIV-prevalence rate has reached about 2.4 percent. There were reports of discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS in 2008, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor. The U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report upgraded Belize to Tier 2 from Tier 3 after it adopted a U.S. plan to intensify intelligence gathering, conduct raids, and assist victims, and it remained in Tier 2 in 2008, but human trafficking remains a major challenge.