Located on a sliver of the Caribbean coast of Central America, Belize is both Central American and Caribbean, and belongs to international organizations pertaining to both regions. Belize is the second smallest country in the Americas, and has one of the smallest capitals (Belmopan, pop. 14,000) in the world. It’s warm climate and the prevalence of English speakers has made Belize a popular destination for American tourists and expatriates.
Lay of the Land: Belize, known as British Honduras until 1973, is the only English speaking country in Central America. Belize is located at the southern end of the Yucatán peninsula; Mexico borders Belize to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean to the east. Coastal swamps rise gradually in the south to almost 4,000 foot peaks, but the country's basic profile is low-lying jungle and extensive coastline. The Caribbean coast is lined with a coral reef and about 450 islets and islands, which form the 200 mile long Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere and the second longest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Belize is the only country in Central America without direct access to the Pacific Ocean. With an area of 8,867 square miles (slightly larger than Massachusetts) and a population just more than 300,000, Belize is the most sparsely populated country in Central America at just 35.4 people per square mile. Massachusetts, in contrast, has a population density of 810 people per square mile. About half the population of Belize lives in rural areas, while a quarter of Belizeans live in its largest city and former capital, Belize City.
The territory that eventually became Belize was initially settled by the Maya people around 1500 BC, and Mayan civilization flourished until around 1300 AD. At the height of the Mayan civilization, there were probably about 400,000 people living in Belize. By 1500, when Columbus sailed past but did not disembark in Belize, the Maya empire was long gone, but the Maya people remained. Although Spain claimed sovereignty over the whole of Central America, the Spanish did not successfully colonize Belize, which was gradually settled by the British, who engaged in logging for export. Because of Spain’s claims to the territory, Britain did not organize Belize as a colony until 1840, four years after the liberation of Central America from Spanish rule. Although slavery was abolished in the late 1830s, limited access to land and credit meant that the plight of the many slaves working as loggers improved little. For most of the 19th century, Belize was controlled by a small group of wealthy landowners, including several thousand ex-Confederates who emigrated there after the American Civil War. Labor activism in the 1930s for a minimum wage and recognition of the workers’ right to form unions led to an independence movement. Independence was delayed by Guatemala’s assertion that it had succeeded to Spain’s claim to all of Belize’s territory, a dispute that has not yet been resolved. Belize won self-rule in 1964 and independence in 1981, which was accompanied by a British commitment to station troops in the country to deter potential aggression by Guatemala. Since independence, Belize has been a parliamentary democracy with a history of peaceful elections.
Relations between the United States and Belize have been friendly and cooperative for many years. During the 1960s, when Belize had gained self-rule, the U.S. attempted to mediate the long running border dispute with Guatemala, but without success. Like other countries of the Caribbean, Belize has experienced serious problems with drug smuggling, money laundering and other transnational criminal activities. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has provided assistance in these areas.
The United States and Belize traditionally have had close and cordial relations. The United States is Belize's principal trading partner and major source of investment funds. Because Belize’s economic growth and accompanying democratic political stability are important U.S. objectives, Belize benefits from the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative. International crime issues dominate the agenda of bilateral relations between the United States and Belize. The United States is working closely with the Government of Belize to fight illicit narcotics trafficking, and both governments seek to control the flow of illegal migrants to the United States through Belize. Belize and the United States brought into force a Stolen Vehicle Treaty, an Extradition Treaty, and a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between 2001 and 2003.
Americans constitute 70% of all tourists to Belize. 151,510 Americans visited Belize in 2006. More and more Americans have been visiting Belize, with the annual number of visitors up about 50% from the 104,603 that visited in 2002. Not only are Americans visiting Belize in record numbers, they are also settling there, especially those seeking a low cost retirement in an English-speaking country. Although precise numbers are unavailable, several thousand American expatriates currently live in Belize, which made it easier for them to do so in 1999 by passing The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Act (PDF), which allows persons over age 45 with sufficient income to retire to Belize and enjoy a tax-free life. On the flip side, the U.S. is home to the largest Belizean community outside Belize, estimated to be 70,000 strong, and 21,968 Belizeans visited the U.S. in 2006.
Belize has little industry, and virtually none for export. Oil was discovered in 2002, and although production is not large and reserves are somewhat small, it is a growing sector of the economy. Tourism is the mainstay of the Belizean economy, followed by financial services. Belizean exports to the U.S. totaled $105 million in 2007, consisting mainly of food products ($54.47 million, 51.8%) and crude oil ($28.9 million, 27.5%). American exports to Belize totaled $234 million in 2007, dominated by fuel ($33.4 million, 14.2%), food products ($33.6 million, 14.3%), and machinery of many different kinds.
The United States is one of the largest providers of economic assistance to Belize, contributing $2.5 million in various bilateral economic and military aid programs to Belize in FY 2006. Of this amount, nearly half a million dollars was provided by the U.S. Military Liaison Office. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) closed its Belize office in August 1996 after a 13-year program during which USAID provided $110 million worth of development assistance to Belize. Belize still benefits from USAID regional programs. In addition, during the past 42 years, almost 2,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Belize. As of February 2008, the Peace Corps had 63 volunteers working in Belize. The U.S. military has a diverse and growing assistance program in Belize that has included the construction and renovation of several schools and youth hostels, medical assistance programs, and drug reduction programs. All of the $492,000 in U.S. aid to Belize in 2006 was dedicated to Peace and Security. International Military Education and Training received $294,000, and Foreign Military Financing received $198,000. In the 2008 budget request, aid will be slightly decreased to $370,000. In the 2008 budget, which is also fully dedicated to Peace and Security, Development Assistance will receive $200,000, and International Military Education and Training will receive $170,000.
Belize is a parliamentary democracy with freedom of expression, religious liberty, and other basic human rights. Elections have been free and fair without violence or intimidation. The government generally respects the human rights of its citizens. Human rights problems include brutality and the use of excessive force by security forces,. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. Domestic violence, discrimination against women, sexual abuse of children, trafficking in persons for sexual and labor exploitation, and child labor are also problems.
Néstor Méndez is both Belize’s Ambassador to the United States and its Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS). He presented his credentials to the OAS on June 16, 2008, and to the U.S. government six weeks later. Méndez did graduate work at the Eliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He was counselor of the Belize High Commission in London from 1997 to 1999.
By appointing his college roommate, Vinai K. Thummalapally, to the cushy post of ambassador to Belize, President Barack Obama followed in the tradition of Goerge W. Bush who also chose a college roommate as ambassador to Belize. It didn’t hurt that Thummalapally made significant financial contributions to the 2008 campaign. Confirmed by the Senate on July 30, 2009, Thummalapally is the first Indian-American ambassador in U.S. history.
Originally from the Jubilee Hills neighborhood of Hyderabad, India, Thummalapally is the son of T. Dharma Reddy, a retired scientist who worked for the Andhra Pradesh Forensic Sciences Laboratory, and T. Padmaja. Thummalapally came to the United States in 1974 at the age of 19, and attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he first met Obama in 1980. They spent the summer as roommates, debating foreign policy and watching Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. Thummalapally made Indian food for “Barry”—the name Obama went by at that time—teaching him how to make daal.
The two did their share of partying together, although Thummalapally’s reminiscences seem to vary. In one recollection he recalled, “It was so typical that [Obama] could just go and type out this amazing paper and do well after having partied all night, having drinks, beer or whatever we do at college.” But in another account Thummalapally told The New York Times that Obama was a model of moderation—jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing. “If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” said Thummalapally. “He was not even close to being a party animal.”
Obama spent two years at Occidental before transferring to Columbia University in New York to complete his undergraduate degree. Thummalapally apparently transferred as well, given that his biography says he received his Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from California State University, although it does not say which of the 20 Cal State campuses he attended. Thummalapally’s CV also states that he later completed post-graduate courses in business administration at an unnamed university.
Thummalapally began his career as a mechanical engineer, before becoming general manager for WEA Manufacturing, which produced CDs. He went on to serve as a managing partner of Clines Office Products, as manufacturing manager of Disc Manufacturing, Inc., and as the plant manager for Mitsui Advanced Media Inc., eventually becoming president of MAM-A Inc., a Colorado-based manufacturer and distributor of recordable CDs and DVDs.
Thummalapally and his wife, Barbara, attended Obama’s wedding in 1992. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Thummalapally was named to Obama’s National Finance Committee to help “bundle” contributions that reportedly totaled between $100,000 and $200,000, according to OpenSecrets.org. Barbara worked as a volunteer for the Obama campaign.
The Thummalapallys, along with son, Vishal, and daughter, Sharanya, were VIP guests at Obama’s inauguration ceremony and ball.