An aerial view shows the coastline and bustling architecture of Belize City. Photo by Photosounds
By Adam Benz
Belize—the only English-speaking country in Central America—is a unique blend of Caribbean and Central American cultures. A perfect mix of well-preserved nature, time-honored traditions from diverse cultures, and the laid-back attitude of its residents have helped Belize become widely known by the nickname “the Jewel” by both tourists and locals alike.
Americans recognize Belize for its beautiful sandy beaches, verdant rainforests, and rainbow-colored reefs. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It represents a 190-mile long section of the 560-mile barrier reef system extending from Cancún to Honduras—the second largest coral reef system in the world.
Dozens of scenic Mayan ruins dot the countryside, particularly the 55 percent of Belize still covered by lush tropical forests. Long famed for its world-class scuba diving, Belize has attracted new forms of adventure tourism far from its shores in recent years, including jungle trekking and cave tubing through pristine limestone caves where ancient Maya artifacts can still be found.
Belize’s population of about 400,000 is dwarfed by its more developed neighbors whose populations number in the tens of millions. Given its small population, the variety of cultures in Belize is truly astonishing. Visitors trekking across a country roughly the size of Massachusetts are likely to come across locals speaking languages such as English, Spanish, Kriol, Mayan, Garifuna (an Arawak language), German (Belize has a large Mennonite community), Mandarin, and South Asian languages—with each group preserving its own distinct culture, cuisine, and traditions.
The first U.S. consulate in British Honduras (modern Belize) opened March 3, 1847. The United States recognized Belize’s independence, Oct. 29, 1981, and transformed its consulate into an embassy. The old embassy building in Belize City remained in use until Dec. 11, 2006 when the U.S. Mission moved to the newly constructed U.S. Embassy in Belmopan. Currently, 39 U.S. direct-hire employees and 105 locally employed staff perform the full range of diplomatic activities, including political-economic reporting, consular services, export and trade promotion, public diplomacy, and law enforcement.
Belmopan, with less than 20,000 inhabitants, is the smallest capital in the Americas. It became Belize’s capital in 1970 in response to the destruction wrought in 1961 by Hurricane Hattie on Belize City, the former capital and Belize’s largest city.
Embassy Belmopan plays a critically important role in protecting the many U.S. citizens, both residents and visitors, in Belize. Before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, nearly 1 million American tourists visited Belize each year, and this number does not include the estimated 30,000 U.S. citizens who permanently reside in Belize. While international tourism was essentially halted for 187 days when Belize’s international airport was closed before October 2020, many of the thousands of U.S. citizen permanent residents remaining in Belize turned to the embassy’s consular section for assistance. Some of these U.S. citizens wished to remain in Belize but sought consular assistance with medication or financial issues complicated by Belize’s extensive lockdown. Others just wanted to return home to the United States.
By sharing timely information with their Citizen Liaison Volunteer network, fielding a high volume of daily calls and messages via the embassy’s Facebook page, the embassy reached hundreds of U.S. citizens each week and provided critical information about repatriations. Between March 28 and Oct. 1, the consular section repatriated 1,700 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents on 22 separate commercial repatriation flights, most of which were United Airlines flights. Achieving this challenging task required both careful negotiations and relationship building with key government and airline industry contacts, as well as exceptional customer service with hundreds of anxious U.S. citizen families. Yet, by the time the airport reopened on Oct. 1, every U.S. citizen who wanted to purchase a ticket to return home on a commercial repatriation flight while the airport was closed had been able to do so. Despite the ongoing challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents, the consular section continues to provide essential services to U.S. citizens. Most recently, they reunited a mother with her son after he was abducted from the United States more than two years ago.
The arrival of Belize’s annual hurricane season during a year in which the country was already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges to Belize’s developing natural disaster and crisis response capabilities. Urgent medical travel in a disaster can become even more perilous in a country with a sparsely populated country with few urban centers. To ensure the health and safety of embassy personnel and the host country population, the embassy’s Regional Security Office (RSO) worked tirelessly with partners to develop a creative solution to these challenges.
“Relationships go a long way in these situations,” said Assistant Regional Security Officer Investigator Jon Paul Bernard. “You start working the problem and talking to people, calling your contacts, and all of a sudden you know a guy with a helicopter. That doesn’t happen from sitting at your desk; you have to get out in the community.”
Thanks to RSO’s diligence, the embassy was able to put a contingency plan in place for an emergency medevac unaffected by roads washing away or severe flooding from hurricanes.
The embassy continues to invest heavily in exchange programs, entrepreneurial workshops, media literacy seminars, and training courses, supporting Belize to build its structural capacity while building lasting relationships with its teachers, entrepreneurs, law enforcement, military officials, and community and government leaders. Through its support of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative and the Youth Ambassadors Program, the embassy helps nurture the next generation of young Belizean leaders. Likewise, through its EducationUSA Center in Belize City, the embassy provides information and resources to growing numbers of Belizean students interested in studying in the United States.
Belize enjoys a stable government, with a representative parliamentary democracy arising from its roots as a former British possession. Its two parties are both centrist and have a history of peaceful transitions of power since attaining independence in 1964. It has strong economic ties to the United States, with the Belizean dollar set to the U.S. dollar two-to-one. Its tourism industry caters to American travelers, and the United States is home to the largest Belizean expatriate community, estimated to be 70,000 strong. The United States remains Belize’s primary trading partner.
The United States and Belize also share interests in regional security issues such as stopping the transshipment of narcotics through the country, managing the movement of irregular migrants, anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts, and economic development in the key regions of Central America and the Caribbean. As a whole, Belizeans hold strong democratic ideals, have favorable opinions of the United States, and are strong supporters of small, independent states.
Neighboring Guatemala holds a centuries-old claim to more than 50 percent of Belize’s territory. Belize took the extraordinary step of holding a referendum in 2019, referring the matter to the International Court for arbitration—demonstrating Belize’s faith in the democratic process and international institutions’ reliability and impartiality. Belize stands as a champion for small states’ rights—holding the presidency of the Small Island Developing States, and for being a staunch ally of and international champion for Taiwan. Belize’s international interests extend to environmental protection, climate change mitigation, economic development to small developing nations, and multilateralism. It actively participates in several international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, various United Nations agencies, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and regional groups such as the Caribbean Community.
Belize is a model of democracy in its region and is a strategic gateway to both Central America and the Caribbean. Its democratic values and vibrant and diverse cultures create linkages and opportunities for cooperation with the United States and its Caribbean and Central American neighbors. Embassy Belmopan continues to build on the shared commitment to democracy and good governance, economic growth, regional security, and meaningful people-to-people exchanges. Through its stunning natural wonders, its rainbow tapestry of cultures, and the promise it holds for a brighter, more integrated and prosperous Western Hemisphere, one can see just how Belize became known as “the Jewel.”
Adam Benz is the public affairs officer at Embassy Belmopan.