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Belmopan: smaller is better in close-knit community.

Belmopan's official nickname is "Garden City," but locals and expatriates alike know it as "Capital Village." With a population between 10,000 and 15,000, Belmopan, Belize, is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. The three-mile-long Ring Road outlines the heart of the city, surrounding parks, government offices, the farmers' market, small businesses and the bus station. Each day, the population balloons as old American school buses bring thousands into the capital for work.

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Belmopan's small size can mostly be attributed to its short history. Plans were laid for a new capital after Hurricane Hattie destroyed Belize City in 1961 for the second time in 30 years. Development has been slow, but Belmopan has grown more rapidly in recent years. The U.S. Embassy moved to Belmopan in 2006, and more people move to the capital each year. New stores and restaurants open (and close) with regularity.

Located on the southern part of the Yucatan peninsula, Belize borders Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. Belizeans refer to their country as a "melting pot of cultures"--a surprisingly accurate description for a country of only 330,000 people. Almost half the population is mestizo of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. One quarter is Creole, 10 percent is Mayan and 6 percent is Garinagu--descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people. Each group contributes unique historical and cultural characteristics. Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants own and operate many of the grocery stores. There are also a significant number of Mennonites, who produce the majority of food consumed in Belize.

Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981 but remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. English is the official language and is widely spoken, along with Spanish and Creole. Belize strongly identifies with both Caribbean and Central American cultures and is a member of the Caribbean Community and the Central American Integration System.

In comparison to its Central American neighbors, Belize has higher wages and a higher cost of living. Due to these higher costs and poor infrastructure, there are very few manufacturing jobs. Most of the country's $1.4 billion gross domestic product is tied to agriculture--mostly citrus and sugar--and eco-tourism.

Tourism is Belize's largest industry. Each year, one million tourists--three times the population of the country--visit. Many are day trippers who have come ashore from large cruise ships. Most overnight tourists head to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, made famous by Madonna as "La Isla Bonita." San Pedro has resorts and restaurants and offers a wide variety of water sports.

Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Belize's barrier reef--the largest in the Western Hemisphere--provides fantastic opportunities for snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and boating. Hundreds of smaller cayes (pronounced "keys") dot the coastline.

On the mainland, the sights and activities include dozens of caves for adventurous tourists to explore. One of the most popular activities is cave tubing, where visitors float down rivers that pass through several caves. Other caves are great for spelunking. One, Actun Tunichil Muknal, was used for ancient Mayan rituals and features calcified remains of human sacrifices as well as pottery. There are also several popular Mayan temple complexes, including Xunantunich, Altun Ha, Caracol and Lamanai.

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The United States and Belize have had diplomatic relations since 1848 and continue to work together to improve citizen safety, increase economic prosperity, strengthen democratic institutions and protect the environment. The embassy's Military Liaison Office worked extensively with the government of Belize on creating the Belize National Coast Guard, training Belizean officers, donating small boats and constructing the Coast Guard headquarters and a forward operating base on Calabash Caye.

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Since Ambassador Vinai Thummalapally's arrival in 2009, the embassy has increased its focus on development. The embassy has provided $450,000 for programs for at-risk youth, sponsored the Belize Woman of the Year competition, donated musical instruments to local schools and facilitated cultural exchanges, including a visit by the popular Step Afrika! dance troupe. The Peace Corps has been active in Belize since 1962 and has more than 80 volunteers serving in business and organizational development, education, health and youth development.

Crime is a significant problem in Belize. The per-capita murder rate is one of the highest in the world. The police and judiciary lack adequate resources and training, and corruption is a problem. Belize is also a transit point for trafficking in persons, drugs and other contraband. Through the Central America Regional Security Initiative and other programs, the embassy is working with the government to help reduce crime.

Belize has become a hot spot for American fugitives, providing plenty of work for the embassy's regional security officers. In 2009 and 2010, Belize returned 33 fugitives to the United States. Worldwide, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security returned 323 fugitives during the same period, so Belize accounted for more than 10 percent, ranking second only to Mexico. In 2010, RSO Rob Kelty, Assistant RSO Paul Trachtenberg and local Foreign Service National investigators Baltazar Garcia and Keith Hamilton received the U.S. Marshal Service Investigative Excellence Award for their work returning fugitives. The arrest of three fugitives prominently featured on America's Most Wanted captured the attention of host John Walsh, and the show filmed its 999th episode in Belize in February 2010.

While the statistics may make Belize seem dangerous, much of the crime is concentrated in the southern part of Belize City. Belmopan, on the other hand, is very safe. People walk the Ring Road and shop in the central market. Property crime is considerably lower than in Belize City.

Belmopan's small size has some advantages. With little nightlife and few restaurants, the locals and the expat community are very welcoming to newcomers. People often host parties in their homes. The Hash House Harriers running club is active, as are international women's and men's groups. The daily commute is non-existent; there are no stop lights in town (and fewer than a dozen in all of Belize). A honked horn is more often a note of greeting between friends than unfriendly encouragement to get moving.

Eighteen of the 24 embassy-leased houses, including the chief of mission's residence, are on a housing compound that has a pool, basketball court, tennis court, walking paths and playground. Most of the school-aged children attend the Belize Christian Academy. The older children in junior high and high school are home-schooled.

The embassy community is very close, as evidenced by parties and dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas, barbeques for new arrivals and kids' events such as Halloween parties, Easter egg hunts and cookies with Santa. The community liaison office has organized trips to archaeological sites and caves, as well as Wii and movie nights on the compound. Through the Fit US Embassy program, the embassy community is getting fit working out in the gym, jogging and playing basketball, dodge ball, flag football and ultimate frisbee. It's not hard to stay busy in Capital Village.

The author is a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan, Belize.

At a Glance

Belize

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Capital: Belmopan

Government type: Parliamentary democracy

Area: 22,966 sq. km.

Comparative area: Slightly larger than Massachusetts

Population: 307,900

Languages: English (official), Creole, Spanish, Garifuna and Mayans

GDP-per capita: $8,200

Export commodities: Ca ne suga r, citrus and marine products

Export partners: United States, United Kingdom and Nigeria

Import commodities: Food, consumer goods and machinery

Import partners: United States, Mexico and Cuba

Currency (code): Belizean dollars (BZD)

Internet country code: .bz

Source: Country Background Notes
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Post of the Month
Author:Caniglia, Al
Publication:State Magazine
Article Type:City overview
Geographic Code:2BELI
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Words:1268
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