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Country profile: Belize
languages: English (official),
Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna
(Carib), Creole Prime minister: Dean Barrow
over one-third of Belize's labor force, is vital
to the country's economy, accounting for nearly
22 percent of the GDP in 1999 and about 68
percent of export earnings. Sugar
is produced in the north of the country and is
the nation's largest agricultural export,
accounting for 50 percent of domestic export
revenues and half of all arable land use.
Preferential quotas and tax rates on sugar
exports granted by the United States and the
European Union have kept sugar revenues high.
The United States bought 16,772 tons and the
European Union bought 39,400 tons of sugar from
Belize in 1999.
Fruits, such as bananas, oranges, and
grapefruits, are the country's second largest
agricultural export. Fruit production, which
occurs in the Stann Creek Valley, is affected by
weather and international market conditions. For
example, Hurricane Keith caused great setbacks
in the agricultural sector in 2000. Also, export
revenues rose to record levels in 1995-96, but
as international prices fell, earnings slumped.
Banana production is significant, accounting for
16 percent of total exports in 1999. Production
was controlled by the state-run Banana Control
Board until 1991. It was then taken over by a
growers' association which, through efficient
management, raised banana production to record
levels by the mid-1990s. Other export crops
include assorted vegetables and tropical fruits,
chili peppers, papayas, and organic cocoa.
Belize has more in common with the Caribbean island-states than with its Central American neighbours.
This is reflected in its major languages, English and Creole, and in its mainly Anglo-Caribbean architecture and its relatively peaceful political culture.
It also has peoples and cultures found elsewhere in the Americas - Spanish-speaking Mestizos, who are of mixed Maya Indian and European ancestry, Creoles, who speak a Creole dialect of English and who are often of African and African-European extraction, and Garifuna, who are the descendants of Carib Indians and Africans.
CHAMPION OF GARIFUNA
Andy Palacio, who died in 2008, spearheaded a revival of Central America's Garifuna culture
Nonetheless, the ethnic make-up is changing and the use of Spanish is on the rise, boosted by an amnesty for many immigrants from neighbouring Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, was the UK's last colony on the American mainland. Its independence was delayed until 1981 by long-running tension with neighbouring Guatemala, which claims a large portion of its territory.
Guatemala recognised Belize's independence in 1991, but the neighbours have yet to settle their border dispute, which is rooted in colonial times.
Belize has always had strong ties with Britain and the United States, but has recently also forged closer links with Latin American countries such as Mexico and Venezuela.
In common with many Caribbean economies, the service sector has overtaken agriculture, fishing and forestry.
Tourism is a major source of foreign currency. Belize's attractions include wildlife, Mayan ruins and one of the longest barrier reefs in the world. More than 200 islands nestle inside the reef.
Cruise ship arrivals have seen a massive increase in recent years. But tourism has its price; among the challenges facing Belize is the threat to the habitats of its mammals and birds.
Also, Belize has a problem with violent crime, much of it drug-related, and the trafficking of narcotics to the US. In 2006 the US state department included Belize in a list of countries which it said were not doing enough to tackle human trafficking.
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor
Prime minister: Dean Barrow
Dean Barrow's United Democratic Party (UDP) won the general election in February 2008. He unseated the People's United Party (PUP) government of Said Musa, which had been in power for 10 years.
The PUP was the driving force behind independence and won 10 of the 12 elections since Belize first elected a legislative assembly under British rule in 1954. In the last years of Mr Musa's government the PUP had been rocked by allegations of corruption.
Mr Barrow promised a campaign against graft, increased spending on infrastructure and the establishment of an elected Senate in place of the current appointed upper house.
Mr Barrow is Belize's first black prime minister. A leading lawyer, he was elected to parliament in 1984 and served in senior positions in UDP governments until the PUP won a landslide in 1998. He then led the party in opposition until its victory at the polls in 2008. He also serves as minister of finance.