In 1993 archaeologists discovered evidence of a farming community in Belize dating from 2500–1100 B.C. The Mayas first settled in the area some 200 to 300 years later, and a few ancient Maya cities still survive. The region was probably traversed by Cortés on his way to Honduras, but the Spanish made no attempt at colonization. British buccaneers, who used the cays to prey on Spanish shipping, founded Belize (early 17th cent.). British settlers from Jamaica began the exploitation of timber. Spain contested British possession several times until defeated at the last battle of St. George's Cay (1798). From 1862 to 1884 the colony was administered by the governor of Jamaica.
Guatemala long claimed the territory as part of its inheritance from Spain. As Belize progressed toward independence, the tension between Britain and Guatemala over the issue increased. In 1964 the colony gained complete internal self-government, and in 1981 Belize achieved independence, a development that prompted Guatemala to threaten war. Relations improved, however, and in Sept., 1991, Guatemala officially recognized Belize's independence and sovereignty. Nonetheless, a British force aimed at guaranteeing independence remained in the country until Sept., 1994. The poorly defined border, however, remained a source of tension. In 1993 Manuel Esquivel of the United Democratic party (UDP) became prime minister; he was replaced in 1998 by Said Musa of the People's United party (PUP). In 2000, under the sponsorship of the Organization of the American States, Belize and Guatemala began negotiations to end their territorial dispute, and in 2002 they reached agreement on a draft settlement, which must be approved by national referendums. Musa's party was returned to power in the Mar., 2003, parliamentary elections. Corruption allegations and party infighting contributed to the PUP's loss in the Feb., 2008, elections, and Dean Barrow, the UDP party leader, succeeded Musa as prime minister. The UDP also won the Mar., 2012, elections, although it saw its majority reduced.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.