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Useful Notes / Belize

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For whatever reason, Belize is often overlooked and is widely regarded as an obscure Central American nation. But despite being in Central America, Belize is not Latin American and is often seen as being culturally Caribbean. It's even a member of CARICOM.

Modern-day Belize, and the north, in particular, was once home to the oldest Mayan civilizations. Ancient architecture can still be seen throughout the country, including the nationally important sites of Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, and Caracol. During the 16th century, the Spanish claimed all of Central America as a possession, but because of fierce Mayan resistance in what is now Belize, the Spanish did not settle in the area, instead only making brief "entradas" into the country, some violent, and some less so. Contrary to popular belief, it derives its name from a British corruption of a Spanish transliteration of a Mayan word, the word for the Belize River.

Initially, the economy of the settlement in modern-day Belize City was based around logwood, which can be used to produce a variety of colored dyes such as blacks, blues, and purples, making it important for clothing and hat manufacturers. However, due to an oversupply of logwood, the price began to plummet, sinking from around 100 pounds per tonne in 1650 to 10 pounds per tonne in the 1760s. Fortunately, the hard, efficient wood mahogany grew abundantly in the Central American lowlands of Belize, and the country began shifting its economy towards mahogany extraction and export. The logging trade in the area grew, earning money for the British in spite of it taking place on Spanish territory.

While fears of Spanish enforcement of their territorial claims were pervasive amongst the Baymen, there was a specific economic advantage to the dubious status of their settlement—as they were, legally, not technically a British colony, exports from Belize were not subject to the Navigation Act, which effectively gave them a loophole to bypass certain economic restrictions. Eventually, as part of the 1763 treaty of Paris, Spain agreed to continue allowing the trade to continue. The Baymen continued to expand their trade throughout the area, which agitated the Spanish, as they felt that the British were encroaching on their land. This increased tension between the two countries, and in the 1780s the Spanish began deporting Baymen to Cuba.

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe, in which Spain sided with France, increased tensions between Britain and Spain. The diplomatic tensions resulted in Spain declaring war on Britain in 1797. The Baymen began worrying that the Spanish would attack them and so appealed to the governor of Jamaica, Alexander Lindsay, for help. Lindsay sent a colonel named Thomas Barrow to administrate the settlement. Barrow organized the lawless Baymen and introduced martial law in the settlement. In 1798, Spanish ships tried to force their way into the settlement through the sea. They were fought off by the Baymen on the island of St Georges Caye. The Baymen had given weapons to their slaves and this helped them win the battle (that and the fact that the Spanish sailors all had yellow fever).

The battle of St Georges Caye is remembered every 10th September in Belize and 'St Georges Caye Day' is a national holiday. Although the battle did not make the settlement independent, it did establish that the Baymen were not going to leave.

In 1823, Central America became independent from Spain and formed the 'United Provinces of Central America'. The territory that the Baymen settlement was on also seceded. In 1835 the British outlawed slavery and wanted to incorporate modern-day Belize into a British colony to enforce this. In 1835, Guatemala became independent, and the land was ceded to them. The unrest throughout Central America, especially La Guerra de las Castas, caused an influx of Spanish-speaking refugees to move to what is now Belize.

In 1859 the Guatemalan government was approached by the British who wanted them to cede the tracts of land that would become Belize. Guatemala agreed to do so, on the condition that the British build a railway from the Guatemalan capital of Guatemala City to Belmopan. The land was ceded to the British and became the colony of British Honduras, with Belize City as its capital. Despite the agreement, the British did not build a Railway from Guatemala City to Belmopan. There were attempts to build this railroad, but most of them, unfortunately, were largely abortive.

The colonial office began to crack down on British Honduras and took great steps to try and control the colony. They enforced the slavery ban but, although slavery was now illegal, there were still massive inequalities between the former slave-owning landowners and the former slaves. Many former slaves had no choice but to continue working in the logging industry. British Honduras attracted many British businesses, most notably the Belize Estate and Produce Company which bought almost half of the private land in the colony. In the 1860s, British Honduras soon became entirely incorporated into The British Empire, becoming a Crown Colony about a decade later.

The Great Depression of the 1930s crippled the British Honduran economy, which was dependent on selling timber to the British market. Demand for timber in the United Kingdom fell and unemployment became widespread. This caused a general sense of resentment towards the government, since the government refused to introduce a minimum wage in the colony, and was generally slow to respond to their demands for change (if they responded at all). In 1931, Belize was further damaged by a hurricane that destroyed parts of Belize City. The government reacted to this poorly and this caused riots throughout British Honduras during 1934. In response to this, the government legalized trade unions.

Many people from British Honduras went to fight in World War II as part of the British forces, but following the end of this war, the economic situation in the colony had not improved at all. After WWII, many British colonies throughout the world were becoming independent. An independence movement emerged in British Honduras, concurrently with the founding of the 'Peoples United Party (PUP)', which wanted constitutional change for the colony. In 1964, the British colonial office gave the colony some self-governance and the PUP was the first party in office, with George Price as the first prime minister. Price changed the capital from Belize City to Belmopan in 1970. He changed the name of the colony to 'Belize' in 1973.

The PUP ultimately wanted Belize to become independent, but they were hesitant due to neighboring Guatemala's claim over Belizean territories. Because Belize had only been created because the British agreed to build a railway from Belmopan to Guatemala City, and they did not, the Guatemalan government still believed that the land controlled by Belize was rightfully theirs. In 1972, the British Navy even had to send HMS Ark Royal in a high-speed dash across the Atlantic to ward off a feared Guatemalan invasion. The only reason that Guatemala did not invade the colony was that it would lead to war with Britain, and they were already suffering from problems of their own. Belize did however manage to become entirely independent in 1981. The British still agreed to deploy troops in Belize to protect them.

Guatemala was the only nation not to recognize Belize and classified it as a breakaway territory. Negotiations between Guatemala, Belize, and the United Kingdom began. The three nations decided that the original decision was not worth fighting over and in 1991, Guatemala recognized Belize as a sovereign nation. In 1999 however, Guatemala changed its mind and renewed its claim over Belize. Guatemala deployed its army along the border with Belize, which responded by placing its own army on their side of the border. The British army also still remains in Belize. Why the British don't simply build the railroad so as to make amends is anyone's guess.

Belize is a very mixed nation. English is the official language, while most of the people speak Kriol, and Spanish is also widely spoken due to a large Mestizo population. Most people in Belize are mixed race, descendants from English speaking settlers, African slaves, and Spanish speaking refugees. The country, generally, has taken very kindly to immigration. It has historically been a very sparsely populated country; from the 1790 census to one taken shortly after WWII, the population grew from 4,000 to 60,000, and that was fueled more by Mexican refugees fleeing the Caste War than anything. As of 2015, it currently stands at 370,000. Compare this with nearby El Salvador, which despite having a smaller territory, has no less than 17 times more people (6.3 million as of 2015).

Currently, major issues include unemployment, and, to a lesser extent, capital flight. Unemployment was at 23.1% in 2010, with a huge gender gap: In Corozal, a northern state, the female unemployment rate was 41%, while the male unemployment rate stood at 15.1%. In Belize, there is a general public sentiment that the minimum wage, which is double that of any of its neighbors, is immensely prohibitive. The government has been slow to act both historically and presently, and this is the cause of a reasonable degree of debate. Belize is becoming very popular as a retirement destination, and it seems as though ads for Real Estate in the country are becoming more and more frequent. Many of the hotels, businesses, and so on are owned by foreigners, who end up bringing much of the money made from the growing tourism sector out of the country. While it has an image among some tourists shaped by its resorts, mostly off of the mainland, or on the beaches, many who travel or stay further inland are surprised by what they find.

Not only is Belize in the British Commonwealth but it is also a commonwealth realm, meaning that Belize recognizes King Charles III as its own head of state.

Famous Belizeans:

The Belizean flag
The flag's colors combine the blue/white scheme of the People's United Party (PUP), the dominant Belizean party when the country was formally granted independence and the current opposition party, and the red/white of the United Democratic Party (UDP), the current ruling party. At the center of a white disc is the coat-of-arms, emphasizing the role of the mahogany tree in Belize's development during the 18th-19th centuries: the shield contains woodcutters' tools over a ship, supported by a white and a black man holding an ax and an oar, respectively; over the shield is the tree itself, and below is the Latin motto "Sub Umbra Floreo" ("Under the Shade, I Flourish"). The coat-of-arms is finally surrounded by a garland of 25 mahogany leaves.

The Belizean national anthem

O, Land of the Free by the Carib Sea,
Our manhood we pledge to thy liberty!
No tyrants here linger, despots must flee
This tranquil haven of democracy
The blood of our sires which hallows the sod,
Brought freedom from slavery, oppression's rod
By the might of truth, and the grace of God,
No longer shall we be hewers of wood.

Arise! ye sons of the Baymen's clan,
Put on your armour, clear the land!
Drive back the tyrants, let despots flee -
Land of the Free by the Carib Sea!

Nature has blessed thee with wealth untold,
O'er mountains and valleys where prairies roll;
Our fathers, the Baymen, valiant and bold
Drove back the invader; this heritage hold
From proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon,
Through coral isle, over blue lagoon;
Keep watch with the angels, the stars and moon;
For freedom comes tomorrow's noon.

Arise! ye sons of the Baymen's clan,
Put on your armour, clear the land!
Drive back the tyrants, let despots flee -
Land of the Free by the Carib Sea!

  • Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
    • Monarch: Charles III
    • Governor-General: Froyla Tzalam
    • Prime Minister: Johnny Briceño

  • Capital: Belmopan
  • Largest city: Belize City
  • Population: 419,199
  • Area: 22,966 km² (8,867 sq mi) (147th)
  • Currency: Belize dollar ($) (BZD)
  • ISO-3166-1 Code: BZ
  • Country calling code: 501
  • Highest point: Doyle's Delight (1124 m/3,688 ft) (153rd)
  • Lowest point: Caribbean Sea (-7,686 m/-25,217 ft)