Belize country brief

Overview

Australia’s relations with Belize are based on shared historical, sporting, social and political ties, pursuit of common interests, including implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty, and membership of the Commonwealth. Sporting ties include a shared love of cricket and netball. Both governments are looking for opportunities to expand and diversify our economic relations.

Australia and Belize formally established diplomatic relations on 17 January 1982. The Australian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago is accredited to Belize. Belize has established a Consulate in Sydney.

Belize is situated on the eastern coast of Central America, with Guatemala to the south and Mexico to the north. It is the only Central American country without a Pacific coastline. Belize has a very hot and humid tropical climate. The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300 kilometres long section of the 900 kilometres long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is continuous from Cancún on the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula through the Riviera Maya up to Honduras, making it one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.

Although geographically part of Central America, culturally Belize has stronger links to the Caribbean region than to Latin America, particularly through English being the official language and its Commonwealth history. Belize is a member of the Caribbean Community.

Belize’s population is approximately 353,800 (2016 estimate). The main ethnic groups are Mestizo (52.9 per cent), Creole (Afro-Belizean), Maya, German and Garifuna. The two main religions are Roman Catholic (40 per cent) and Protestant (31 per cent).

Originally established by the Maya around 1500 BC, Belize became a colony of British Honduras in 1862. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the main traded commodity was mahogany. The Great Depression in the early 1900s caused a near collapse of the economy due to the fall in British demand for timber. As logwood and mahogany production declined, sugarcane plantations became of increasing importance.

Economic conditions improved after World War II. In 1949, the British devalued the British Honduras dollar, which led to the formation of the People’s Committee that started the call and eventual process towards independence. The process was slowed by Guatemala’s sovereignty claim over the territory and as of 2017, it remains unresolved.

Political overview

Britain granted British Honduras self-governance in 1964. It was officially renamed Belize in 1973.

System of government

Belize is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The structure of government is based on the British parliamentary system, and the legal system is modelled on the common law of England. Belize is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The symbolic head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is represented by the Governor-General. Executive authority is exercised by Cabinet, which advises the Governor-General and is led by the Prime Minister of Belize, who is the head of government.

Cabinet ministers are members of political parties and usually hold elected seats within parliament concurrently with their Cabinet positions. The bicameral National Assembly of Belize is composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The 31 members of the House are popularly elected to a maximum five-year term. The Governor-General appoints the twelve members of the Senate, with the Senate President selected by the members. The Senate is responsible for debating and approving bills passed by the House.

The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. Members are appointed. The judicial system includes local magistrates grouped under the Magistrates Court, which hears less serious cases. The Supreme Court (Chief Justice) hears murder and similarly serious cases, and the Court of Appeal hears appeals from convicted individuals seeking to have their sentences overturned. In some instances, defendants may appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Recent development

Prime Minister Dean Barrow, of the centre-right United Democratic Party (UDP), was elected for a third consecutive term in 2015. The next municipal elections are due in March 2018, and the next general election is due by the end of November 2020.

Foreign and trade policy

Belize is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

The United States is home to the largest Belizean community outside Belize, estimated to be more than 70,000. The United States is Belize's principal trading partner and major source of investment. In 2016, the United States accounted for 37.6 per cent of Belize’s total exports and 33.2 per cent of its total imports.

Since independence, Belize has sought to expand its diplomatic and economic ties with other nations. Belize established relations with China in 1987. Then in October 1989, Belize announced a ‘Two-China’ policy and established full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China swiftly rejected Belize's policy and suspended relations. In 1990, Belize appointed a roving ambassador to the European Economic Community.

Belize's citizenship-by-investment program – designed to attract foreign capital and business people by providing in return the right of residence and citizenship – began in 1986. The program was a popular option among Chinese migrants in the 1990s, and included Hong Kong and Taiwanese migrants. In 2012, Belize entered into an arrangement with Taiwan on fish farming. Taiwan also provides investment funding to Belize in areas such as low cost housing and infrastructure projects like roads.

Bilateral relations

The Australia-Belize relationship is underpinned by our common interests in ocean management and conservation, and joint membership of the Commonwealth, United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

People-to-people links

Australia has a relatively small population of approximately 3,000 migrants (2011 Census) of Caribbean descent.

Belize nationals are eligible to apply for Australia’s Endeavour Awards Scholarships and Fellowships. The program opens annually in April and closes in June.

Development assistance

Belize is eligible for the Australia Award Fellowship program and has received eleven fellowships to date.

From 2010 to 2014, Australia provided over $60 million in official development assistance to the Caribbean region, including 128 Australia Awards scholarships. Belize benefited directly from the program until December 2011, receiving nine Australia Awards scholarships. It also benefitted from regional activities on climate change and disaster risk reduction, economic resilience and arms trade treaty negotiations. The regional program has now concluded, but some activities that have already been funded will continue until 2018.

Australia’s High Commission in Port of Spain manages a Direct Aid Program (DAP) that provides financial support to a broad range of projects in Belize, including community development projects and conservation of Belize’s barrier reef. Australia is also supporting Small Island Developing States access to find greater access to funding sources to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change. Australia, through the CSIRO, supports the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change.

Economic overview

For the latest economic data and details on the bilateral economic and trade relationship between Australia and Belize, refer to the Belize Country Fact Sheet [PDF 36 KB].

Economic directions

Belize is a small economy with a low population density (353,860 people in a total land area of 22,810 square kilometres). There is a large income disparity between the wealthy and the poor, with GDP at 1.7 billion USD and GDP per capita at 4,635 USD (in 2016). Poverty reduction and increasing employment are key policy drivers for the government.

The small, mostly private enterprise economy is based primarily on export of petroleum and crude oil, agriculture, agro-based industry, and merchandising, with tourism and construction recently assuming greater importance.

As was the case in colonial times, sugar remains the principal agricultural crop, accounting for nearly half of exports, while the banana industry is the largest employer. Lack of facilities, technical skills and poor connectivity has not allowed Belize to fully exploit the potential of its luxury and nature-based tourism market.

Oil was discovered in Belize in 2006, production dropped recently and revenues have fluctuated with the change in oil prices. Exploration is ongoing.

A separate but important dimension of the Caribbean's broad economic position is its membership of Petro-Caribe. Established in 2005, Petro-Caribe is an alliance of Caribbean states with Venezuela to purchase oil under special payment conditions. Belize is one of the eighteen members of the alliance. Caribbean and Central American states purchase oil on preferential or deferred payment conditions. While Belize has its own oil reserves, the scheme plays an important role in ensuring Belize’s energy security.

Economic outlook

Declining oil production and weaker agricultural commodity prices have led to a marked widening of the trade deficit. Hurricane Earl swept through Belize in August 2016, causing damage to tourism sea infrastructure, beach erosion and services such as electricity. There was widespread agricultural damage and over 2,000 houses were destroyed. The overall damage bill was estimated at 110 billion USD.

Real GDP growth in 2017 is estimated to be three per cent, up from minus one per cent in 2016. Inflation is set to remain at about 2.3 per cent in 2017, and estimated to rise to around 2.5 per cent in 2018.

Trade and investment

Economic and trade relationship

In 2016, two-way trade with Australia was modest at around AUD1.68 million. Australia’s main exports were power-generating machinery and parts and goods vehicles, while our main import was manufactured tobacco.

The principal export destinations for Belize in 2016 were the United States (33.2 per cent), the United Kingdom (28.4 per cent), and Jamaica (5.6 per cent).

Export opportunities

Opportunities exist in Belize in the offshore oil and gas sectors, for Australia’s mining and mining equipment, technology and services (METS) companies. The economic backbone of many small Caribbean countries is tourism. This creates opportunities for Australian companies in the area of resort development and management. Tourist industry services, such as hospitality training, are another areas of potential investment.

Primary education is free and compulsory through to the age of fourteen, although twelve per cent of Belizean children do not attend primary school. Only about seventy per cent of teachers are professionally trained, but this proportion is growing with recent amendments to the Education Act in 2017 that require all teachers to be professionally qualified in order to obtain a licence to teach.

Over 55 per cent of the Belize population is under the age of 25. The under-25 unemployment rate is 25 per cent overall and 35.6 per cent for under-25 women. This impacts on poverty levels and quality of life. Secondary schools, apprenticeship and vocational programs can only accommodate half of the children who complete primary school. There is a demand for quality education services, including post-secondary education, outside the region, which is largely met by the United States and the United Kingdom. Australian providers are in a strong position to compete in this market.

High level visits

July 2017 – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met Belize’s Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington in the margins of the Thirty-Eighth Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Grenada.

Last Updated: 7 August 2017