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    Belize, an independent state in northeastern Central America, is bounded on the north and northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. Until 1973, Belize was known as British Honduras. Belize became independent in 1981 and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The total area of Belize is 22,965 sq km (8867 sq mi).

    Land and Resources

    The northern half of Belize consists of lowlands, large areas of which are swampy. The southern half is dominated by mountain ranges, notably the Maya Mountains, which rise to a maximum elevation of 1122 m (3681 ft) atop Victoria Peak. The Caribbean coastline is fringed by coral barrier reefs and numerous cays (islets). The principal streams are the Belize River; the Hondo River, which forms much of the boundary with Mexico; and the Sarstún River, which forms the southwestern boundary with Guatemala. The climate of Belize is subtropical, moderated by sea breezes along the coast. The average annual temperature is about 26.1° C (about 79° F). The total annual rainfall increases from north to south and averages about 1800 mm (about 71 in). A rainy season extends from June to late January.

    Slightly less than half the area of Belize is covered by forests. Deciduous trees are found in the north; tropical hardwood trees predominate in the south. Principal species include the commercially important mahogany, cedar, and rosewood, as well as pine, oak, and palms. Mangrove swamp vegetation is found along the coast. Wildlife includes jaguar, deer, tapir, and numerous species of birds and reptiles.

    Population and Education

    The majority of the population of Belize is of mixed racial descent. The largest group is of black or partly black ancestry. Other groups include Native Americans, principally Carib and Mayan, located in the north and west; people of European descent, mainly English and Spanish; and people of mixed Native American-European descent.

    The population of Belize is 203,957 (1993 estimate). The overall density of about 9 persons per sq km (about 23 per sq mi) is the lowest in Central America. Population is concentrated in a few principal urban centers, of which Belize City (population, 1988 estimate, 49,671) is the largest; it is also the principal port. Belmopan (1988 estimate, 3694), a newly constructed city, supplanted Belize City as the official capital in 1972. English is the official language; other languages spoken include Carib, Mayan, Spanish, and a Creole dialect of English. More than half the people are Roman Catholic, and most of the remainder are Protestant.

    Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. In the late 1980s some 39,800 pupils were enrolled in primary schools, and about 7300 students were enrolled in secondary schools. Higher education is available at colleges in Belize City and Corozal. The literacy rate of more than 90 percent is one of the highest in Latin America.

    Government Belize is governed under a constitution that became effective at independence in 1981. The British sovereign is head of state and is represented by a governor-general, who has little power. Executive power is mainly exercised by a cabinet of ministers, led by a prime minister. The bicameral National Assembly consists of a Senate of 8 appointed members and a House of Representatives of 28 members elected by universal suffrage to terms of up to five years. The prime minister must have the support of a majority of the members of the House. The leading political parties are the People's United Party (1950) and the United Democratic Party (1974).