Belize | Freedom House

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The political establishment was shaken by several high-profile cases of corruption and financial mismanagement during 2009, including the arrest of Belize City’s mayor and charges—later dismissed—against a former prime minister. Also in 2009, violent crime continued, and Prime Minister Dean Barrow failed to make progress on proposed constitutional amendments that would have, among other things, allowed for wiretapping, preventative detentions, and government seizure of lands containing mineral resources.

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).
Said Wilbert Musa of the PUP was elected as prime minister 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, public protests broke out, focusing on issues including education and financial mismanagement. The Musa government’s plan to take over the debt of Universal Health Services (UHS), a private company, was particularly controversial. Belize received a US$10 million grant from the Venezuelan government that year for the construction and repair of housing, but the funds were diverted to Belize Bank to assist in the repayment of a government-guaranteed loan to UHS.
The UDP, led by Dean Barrow, ousted Musa and the PUP in February 2008 parliamentary elections, taking 25 out of 31 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly and leaving the PUP with just six seats. Voter turnout was lower than in the last elections, but the balloting was determined to be free and fair.
In April 2008, the Barrow government proposed amendments to the constitution that would allow for wiretapping and preventative detention. The package also provided the government with the right to seize property if mineral resources are discovered on it. Opponents argued that this power could easily be abused and did not respect the land rights of Mayan minority groups. The legislation was passed by the National Assembly in August, but the Court of Appeal ruled in March 2009 that the government had to hold a referendum on the amendments before they could become law. The measure remained stalled at year’s end.
Barrow was also criticized in 2009 for a controversial government takeover of Belize Telemedia, the country’s largest telecommunications company, in August. In reaction to a conflict with the company, lawmakers had quickly amended the Belize Telecommunications Act to allow for the takeover, which was subsequently denounced as illegal and unconstitutional by business groups.

Belize has strengthened ties with Venezuela in recent years, joining its PetroCaribe program, which supplies the majority of the country’s oil imports on favorable terms, in 2006. Belize has also worked with Venezuela and Taiwan to develop its own nascent oil production. Meanwhile, a long-standing border dispute with Guatemala has continued. The two countries agreed in December 2008 to hold referendums on whether to submit the issue to the International Court of Justice, but there were no concrete plans for the votes at the end of 2009.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 is a serious problem, but in a sign of growing intolerance for graft, a number of scandals shook the political scene during 2009. In March, Minister of Human Development and Social Transformation Juan Coy was suspended from his post for six months for an alleged abuse of power in which he intervened to secure the release of seized contraband goods. In September, Belize City mayor Zenaida Moya was arrested on charges linked to the alleged misappropriation of some US$140,000 in public funds. Former prime minister Said Wilbert Musa was cleared in June of corruption charges related to his government’s diversion of funds to aid the private company UHS. Musa rejected the charges, filed in late 2008, as politically motivated. Belize was not included in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Belize has a generally open media environment, with little fear of government reprisal for criticism. 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, but this law has not been applied in recent years. The Belize Broadcasting Authority has the right to prior restraint of all broadcasts for national security or emergency reasons, though this too is rarely invoked. 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. The internet penetration rate is one of the highest in Central America.
There is full freedom of religion in Belize, and academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and demonstrations are usually peaceful. In late January and early February 2009, protests by sugarcane workers turned violent as police attempted to break up a roadblock, resulting in one death and injuries to at least 10 people. A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active, and labor unions remain politically influential despite their shrinking ranks. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate labor 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 compensation. In a positive development, the Supreme Court in July 2009 ruled in favor of six workers who were fired from a Maya King banana farm in 2001 for attempting to join a union.
The judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is generally respected. Court cases are often prolonged for years amid a heavy backlog, while defendants remain free on bail or in lengthy pretrial detention. 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.
According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the 12th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio, with about 476 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 96.5 percent; about a quarter of detainees are awaiting trial.
Violent crime, money laundering, and drug trafficking continued unabated in 2009 due to insufficient countermeasures and government corruption. There were 97 reported homicides in 2009, down 6 percent from the 103 reported in 2008. 
The government actively discourages 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 there has been little action on 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. A number of cases involving the trafficking of workers from South Asia and China for forced labor have also been uncovered in recent years.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor, and the majority of women working in the country’s brothels are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report placed Belize on its Tier 2 Watch List, citing the government’s failure to make progress in trying and convicting offenders.

Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does the prevalence of child labor in agriculture. According to UNAIDS, as of September 2009 the adult HIV-prevalence rate had remained relatively unchanged at about 2.6 percent, compared to 2.4 percent in 2007. There were reports of discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS in recent years, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness.