Belize History

The Country

Belize is the northernmost nation of Central America.  It is bordered by Mexico on the north, Guatemala on the south and west, and the Caribbean Sea on the east.  Belmopan, a small inland town protected from the fury of tropical storms, became the capital in 1970, replacing the coastal Belize City, which is the nation's largest urban center.

Known as British Honduras until 1973, the former British colony achieved self-government in 1964.  On September 21, 1981, Belize was granted independence as a member of the Commonwealth, ending more than 300 years of colonial presence on the American mainland.  The chief of the state is a governor-general named by the British monarch on advice of the Belize government, which is headed by the Prime Minister.  The bicameral legislature, the National Assembly, comprises an appointed Senate and an elected House of Representatives.

The Land and the People

The coast of Belize is swampy and lined with lagoons; numerous reefs and cays, or low inlands, lie off the coast.  Most of the interior is low-lying savanna, much of which was originally covered by hardwood forests.  Several short and turbulent rivers flow through Belize.  In the south are the Maya Mountains.  The average mean rainfall is 2,070mm (81.5 in), and the temperature range is 16 C to 32 C (60 F to 90 F).

The population consists of Creoles (mixed European and African), Mestizos (mixed Maya Indian and Spanish), Caribs (descendants of Carib Indians deported from St. Vincent in 1797), pure Maya, and a scattering of Asians, Portuguese, and other Europeans.  The Caribs had already mixed extensively with people of African descent and today are visually indistinguishable from the Creoles.

The History and Government

During most of the colonial period, Spain claimed sovereignty over Belize.  However, from the mid-17th century, British freebooters settled in the area, using it as a base for privateer operations in the West Indies.  It was not recognized as a British colony until 1862.

Meanwhile, Guatemala had assumed Spain's traditional claim to sovereignty over Belize.  Although in 1859 it had agreed with Britain to cede sovereignty in return for the construction of a road from Guatemala City to Belize, that road was never constructed, and in 1940, Guatemala resumed its claims.  As self-government was established and independence approached, there were lengthy negotiations between Guatemala and Britain involving possible cession of part of Belize to Guatemala.  At one point the United States offered its "good offices" to try to bring about a settlement.  In the meantime the British stationed a battalion of troops and a detachment of fighter aircraft to guarantee Belizean sovereignty.  In the early 1990s a 1500 man British garrison remained in the country, costing Belize 15% of it GDP.

No formal agreement among Guatemala, Britain, and Belize was ever signed.  However, the 1985 Guatemalan constitution gave up that country's unconditional claim to Belize.  The government of Marcos Vinici Cerezo Arevalo, the first civilian government in Guatemala in many years, finally officially recognized the independence of Belize in 1991, in return for a limitation of Belize's Caribbean offshore boundaries and a grant to Guatemala of access to the sea through its territory.

The drive for Belize to emerge from colonial status began soon after World War II, as part of a general movement in the British colonies in and around the Caribbean Sea.  The lead was taken by the People's United Party (PUP), led by George Price, which was established in 1951.  Some limited self-government was granted in 1954, and the PUP won eight of the nine elective seats against the National Independence Party (NIP), led by Philip Goldson in the Legislative Assembly in that year.  Three years later it won all nine.

Under a new constitution that raised to 18 the number of elective seats, the PUP won all 18 in 1961 elections, and George Price became First Minister.  The year after the British granted Belize full internal self-government in 1964, Price assumed the title of Premier.

The problem of Guatemala's claims on the country held up the achievement of full independence by Belize.  In 1981, however, the British and the government of Belize decided not to await the resolution of the Guatemalan question before Belize would become independent.  With the proclamation of independence in September 1981, George Price became Prime Minister.

In the first post-independence election, in 1984, the People's United Party lost for the first time.  The victor was the United Democratic Party (UDP), headed by Manuel Esquivel, who became Prime Minister.  However, the Esquivel government's development policies, which the opposition claimed favored mainly foreigners and involved the selling of citizenship to Hon Kong Chinese, lost the UDP government some popularity.  As a consequence, in the September 1989 election the United Democratic Party got only 49% of the votes and 13 of the 28 seats in the House of Representatives, the People's United Party winning 15 seats with 51% of the votes.  George Price became Prime Minister again.

By Robert J. Alexander

Bibliography: Barry, Tom, Belize (1990); Bolland, O. Nigel, Belize: A New Nation in Central America (1986); Setzekorn, William D., Formerly British Hunduras: A Profile of the New Nation of Belize, rev. ed. (1981).