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The ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) won a slight majority of seats in the March 2012 general elections, allowing UDP leader Dean Barrow to remain prime minister. Meanwhile, violent crime and trafficking in drugs, arms, and humans remained serious concerns in Belize throughout the year.
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 but has remained a member of the British Commonwealth. Control of the government has since alternated 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 prime minister in 1998, replacing George Cadle Prince, the co-founder of the PUP and Belize’s first prime minister. Musa became the country’s first prime minister to secure a second consecutive term after the PUP won again in 2003. However, the opposition UDP swept the 2008 national elections, amid public dissatisfaction with corruption, increased taxation, and rising crime rates. The UDP’s Dean Barrow became prime minister.
The Barrow government proposed controversial amendments to the constitution in 2008 that would allow wiretapping, preventative detention, and the right to seize land where mineral resources were discovered. Opponents argued that this latter measure could easily be abused and did not respect the land rights of Mayan minority groups. The Barrow government also faced criticism for its 2009 takeover of Belize Telemedia Limited, the country’s largest telecommunications company. Although the Supreme Court upheld the nationalization in 2010, the Belizean Court of Appeals ruled in June 2011 that the move was unconstitutional. The Belizean government nationalized Telemedia a second time in July 2011, believing that it had addressed the issues that the court had found to be illegal; in June 2012, however, the Court of Appeals once again found the nationalization unconstitutional. The government has appealed the Court’s decision.
In general elections held on March 7, 2012, the UDP captured 50.4 percent of the national vote and 17 seats—8 fewer than in the previous legislative election—and the PUP took 47.5 percent and 14 seats—8 more seats than previously; turnout was 73.2 percent. However, the PUP alleged that the elections were not free and fair, claiming that there were credible, documented reports of abuse and illegality in the electoral process. The Organization of American States’ first ever Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) to Belize noted similar problems, including complaints of voter list irregularities. The observer mission also voiced concerns that party activists were electioneering outside of polling centers, with many of them wearing t-shirts that supported specific candidates; it also alleged that in at least one case, a party activist was paying voters as they left a polling center. Although the EOM still characterized the elections as free and fair, it did call on the government to pass campaign finance legislation, noting that political financing is unregulated in Belize; there are no limits on campaign spending and no disclosure requirement of campaign contributions or expenditures.
Belize is an electoral democracy. The head of state is the British monarch, who is represented by a governor general. Members of the 31-seat House of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. The 12 members of the Senate are currently appointed to five-year terms, though Belizeans voted in a 2008 referendum to change to an elected Senate following the 2012 general elections.
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.
Government corruption remains a serious problem. Belize is the only country in Central America that is not a party to the UN Convention against Corruption. After running on an anti-corruption platform and winning the 2008 election, Dean Barrow’s popularity suffered in the last term as the result of several corruption scandals involving members of his administration. Barrow fired or demoted several ministers accused of wrongdoing. In January 2012, Merlene Bailey-Martinez resigned from Belize’s Social Security Board amid allegations that she and other state workers had used funds from a government mortgage program to enrich themselves. Later in the year, however, Baily-Martinez became head of the country’s Transport Board.
Belize has a generally open media environment. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but there are exceptions in the interest of national security, public order, and morality. Journalists or others who question the financial disclosures of government officials may face up to three years in prison or up to US$2,500 in fines, 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. Despite the availability of diverse sources of media, including privately-owned weekly newspapers, radio and television stations, concerns over government control of the broadcast industry remain after the attempted nationalization of Telemedia. While the government does not restrict internet access or use, internet penetration is low due to lack of infrastructure and high costs.
Residents of Belize enjoy full freedom of religion, and academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and demonstrations are usually peaceful. 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.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law is generally respected. However, concerns remain that the judicial system is vulnerable to political interference. A 2011 report by the American Bar Association scored Belize poorly on 16 out of 28 factors in evaluating its prosecutorial and criminal justice system, and it found that only one in ten murders leads to a conviction. Defendants can remain free on bail or in pretrial detention for years amid a heavy case backlog; about one-fifth of the country’s detainees are awaiting trial.
Violent crime, money laundering, gang violence, and drug trafficking continued to be serious concerns in 2012; the country saw more than 100 murders for the third year in a row. Extrajudicial killings and the use of excessive force by police remain concerns, and Belizeans lack confidence in a police force they perceive as highly corrupt. Belize was added to the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries in 2011 because of large numbers of drugs and weapons seized along its border with Mexico and weak anticorruption measures; it was added again to the list in September 2012. The U.S. government listed John Zabaneh, a well-known businessman who owns one of Belize’s largest banana farms, as a “drug kingpin” in August 2012. The classification prevents any individual or entity from the United States from doing business with Zabaneh or his companies. The government established a committee in July 2012 to investigate decriminalizing marijuana. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the world’s 9th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio, with about 439 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons do not meet minimum international standards although there are some indications that they are improving.
While the government actively discourages ethnic discrimination, most Spanish-speaking immigrants in the country lack legal status and face discrimination.
Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does the prevalence of child labor in agriculture. Gender disparities are profound; Belize ranks 102 out of 132 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report. One female candidate won office in the March 2012 elections; Belize had previously been the only country in the Americas where no woman served in its elected lower house of government. Only 3 out of 74 candidates who competed in the elections were women. Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor. The majority of trafficked women are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and there is concern that Belize is emerging as a sex tourism destination.
There have been reports of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) persons face legal and societal discrimination. While female same-sex sexual activity is legal, male same-sex sexual activity is illegal and can result in 10 years imprisonment. The Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of this law beginning in May 2013.