"THE NUMBER 1 MAGAZINE ON TRAVEL, LIFE, AND RETIREMENT ON THE CARIBBEAN COAST"
VOLUME II, NUMBER 2
ON-LINE TEXT EDITION
COPYRIGHT 1995 BY LAN SLUDER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Traditional magazine edition with maps and photos also available. Contact Belize First for details.
Telecommunications, Ltd. phone book illustrates Belizeans of every color and creed. But not one Caucasian North American is pictured.
Money talks in Belize, of course, as it does everywhere. Most of Belize's tourism industry is owned by North American interests. Much of its industry and agriculture is controlled by U.S. multinational companies. Politically, however, the typical North American resident of Belize is powerless. He or she has no vote and is truly outside the political process.
That's the fate of expats everywhere, but some who come to Belize, seeing a country that is superficially much like back home, are shocked that they no longer have a power base and are, in a political sense at least, truly powerless.
The North American or European is not so much at the bottom rung of Belizean society, as off the ladder completely. If you like to pick up the phone and give your congressional representative a piece of your mind, you're going to miss this opportunity in Belize.
Best advice: Put your energies in charity or volunteer work where you can make a real difference.
Culture Shock Is Real
Culture shock is what happens when everything looks about 20 degrees off kilter, when all the ways you learned were the right ways to deal with people turn out to be wrong. It is a state, someone said, of temporary madness.
Usually it happens after about six months in a new situation. At first, you're excited and thrilled by the new things you're seeing. Then, one day, you just can't stand one more dish of stewed chicken. In Belize, culture shock is sometimes masked by the surface familiarity. Most Belizeans speak English, albeit a different English. They watch -- such a shame -- American television. They drive big, old Buicks and Chevrolets. They even accept U.S. currency.
But, underneath the surface sameness, Belize is different, a collection of differences. Cases in point: The ancient Mayan view of time, cyclical and recurring, and even the Mayan view today, are grossly different from the linear way urban North Americans view time. The emerging Hispanic majority in Belize has social, religious and political views which are quite different from the views of the average North American, or, even of the typical Belizean Creole. A Belize Creole saying (for which thanks goes to Neil Fraser) is "If crab no walk 'e get fat, if 'e walk too much 'e lose claw." Is that a cultural concept your community shares?
In many cases, family connections and relationships are more important in Belize than they are in the U.S. or Canada. Time is less important. Not wanting to disappoint, Belizeans may say 'maybe' when 'no' would be more accurate. Otherwise honest men may take money under the table for getting things moving. Values North Americans take for granted, such as 'work hard and get ahead,' may not apply in Belize in the same way. Physical labor, especially agricultural work and service work, because of the heritage of slavery and colonialism, is often viewed as demeaning. A Belizean may work long hours for himself -- fishing or logging can be backbreaking labor -- but be reluctant to do so for an employer. Best advice: Prepare yourself for a truly different world view. If you have trouble adjusting, get away on mini-vacations whenever you can.
No Wal-Marts in Belize
Belize has no Wal-Marts. No K-Marts. No Home Depots. No Circuit Cities. No McDonald'ses. It has a Hard Rock Cafe, but not the Hard Rock you're thinking of.
While this lack of homogenization is in Belize's favor, it also means that you can't go down to your neighborhood hyperstore and select from 40 kinds of dish soap, or 18 brands of underwear. Rum may be US$4 a bottle, but Cheetos may be US$3 a bag. Every CD player, nearly every piece of plumbing and electrical equipment, every car and truck, every pair of scissors, every bottle of aspirin, is imported, and often transshipped thousands of miles from one port to another before it gets to the final destination in Belize. Then it's carried on a bus or under a Cessna seat somewhere else.
Belize's small population is spread out over a relatively large area, served by a network of bad roads, old planes and leaky boats. Although the government is shifting its focus from excise and import taxes more to income taxes, much of government revenue still comes from import taxes, so the prices you pay may reflect a tax of 60 or 80 or 100 percent or more.
In short, Belize is an inefficient market of low-paid consumers, a country of middlemen and mom 'n pop stores, few of which could last more than a month or two in a highly competitive marketplace like the U.S.
This is what gives Belize its unique flavor in an age of sameness. But, you better Belize it, it also provides a lot of frustration. Best advice: Buy local products where possible, and make trips to Mexico or the U.S. for big-ticket purchases.
The Costs of Living
Belize doesn't have a cost of living. It has several costs of living.
The traditional view is that Belize is the most expensive country in Central America, yet one of the least expensive in the Caribbean. While there's truth to that, especially as regards travel, it really doesn't take into account that the actual cost of living in Belize can vary from almost nothing to sky high.
You can live in a luxury four-bedroom house on Ambergris Caye, with air conditioning, telephones and faxes, a dishwasher, microwave and cable TV, U.S. food in your pantry and Jack Daniels in your glass, and you can spend thousands a month. Or you can live in a small house in the Cayo, or around P.G., with no phone, eat beans and rice and rice and beans, with Caribbean-brand rum to drink, maybe someone to help clean and cook, for US$300 a month.
After all, the per capita income in Belize is only about US$1800 a year. A weekly wage of US$100 is considered pretty good. Tens of thousands of Belizeans live, and in many cases live comfortably, on a few thousand dollars a year. You can, too. Or you can compromise, forsaking those high-cost icons of civilization such as 80,000 BTU air conditioners, while keeping the Ford Explorer, boat or other toys which you enjoy. Live partly on the Belizean style, partly in the U.S. style, and enjoy the benefits of both, and you'll get more, for less.
Best advice: Live like a Belizean, at least some of the time.
What's inexpensive? That may mean $1000 a month to one family, $400 a month to another, $4,000 a month to another. Whatever your cost of living goal, here are tips to make it happen for you:
¥ Earn your income outside Belize. Belize income tax rates are fairly high. The marginal tax rate is 45 percent above US$30,000 after a few allowances and deductions, but this applies generally to income earned in Belize. Pensions, rents, social security, interest, and wages earned outside Belize are taxed at nominal rates or not at all for those who are for Belizean legal purposes non-residents of Belize. (But check with your tax advisor.)
¥ Choose a rural area. Housing and other costs are surprisingly high in Belize City. Housing prices drop dramatically outside Belize City and the main towns. The Cayo District around San Ignacio is one attractive region with lower housing costs, a lower crime rate, and friendly people.
¥ Avoid Ambergris Caye. While this is one of the most pleasant places to live in Belize, and the first choice for expats, it is also the most expensive, with prices approaching or exceeding those in Florida. Condominiums range from US$100,000 to $250,000, houses from US$75,000 to $300,000 or more. Beach-front lots are going for up to US$1000 per front foot.
¥ Buy Belizean. Anything imported to Belize will be more expensive than in the U.S. But locally produced items and any local food and beverage products are generally less expensive than a comparable item would be in the U.S. Unfortunately, few consumer goods other are made in Belize, and Belize imports twice what it exports.
¥ Make shopping expeditions to Belize City, Mexico and the U.S. Belize City, while no mecca for shoppers, does have some larger stores such as Brodies department store and Save-U supermarket, a modern grocery with air conditioning, bright decor and even an automatic door, the only one in Belize. Belizeans routinely travel to Mexico and to the U.S. for major purchases. While there may be import taxes to pay, the overall savings may be worth it.
¥ Get a Belizean to bargain for you. In Belize, there are often two prices - - the Belizean price and the other price. Where the situation warrants, such as renting a house or buying a big-ticket item, find a Belizean friend to do the negotiating for you.
¥ Enjoy the Belizean life. In most of Belize, you don't need heat, a basement or insulation. Fans and an open window work almost as well as air conditioners. You don't need winter clothes or fancy suits. You don't need electric razors or hair dryers. You don't need three cars. You don't need chests of silverplate and cabinets of crystal, or the home insurance policy to cover them. Belizean life is simpler, and less expensive.
* * * RESIDENCY RED TAPE: HOW TO MOVE TO BELIZE * * *
At present, you have two main options for legal residency in Belize.
One is to get a 30-day tourist entry permit and to keep renewing it for 30-day periods at the Immigration Department in Belize City, at a cost of US$12.50 each time. You can also usually renew the permit in Belmopan or at police departments in the Districts. Unlike the situation in Costa Rica, you do not need to leave the country and return to get a renewal. Many people live in Belize indefinitely this way. In theory, you need to show resources of US$50 per day or $1500 for the month, but this in not usually enforced as long as you do not appear to be a problem visitor. As with all things in Belize, certain accommodations to the letter of the law may be possible, especially after a routine of extensions in established. Note that you MUST have a valid passport to enter and remain in Belize.
The other way is officially to apply for residency. The law states that Belize 'welcomes immigrants who are in a position to come there and establish themselves without government assistance for any of the following purposes: a) agricultural purposes, either on a small holding or plantation basis, b) industrial development, c) sponsored employment by established commercial organization.' If your goal is just to open and run a store or bar, your request for residency likely will NOT be approved. Tourism projects, except for bars and shops, generally do fall under the industrial development area, however. Neither can you come to Belize expecting to go to work, unless you have a special skill and are sponsored by an existing company.
The current Belize government is not actively seeking residents -- it already has a major headache with illegal immigration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- but generally accepts retirees or others with resources. The application process involves red tape, but if you are, more or less, a respectable sort and have some money in the bank or other means of support, and especially if you plan to buy some land, residency likely will be granted within six months. Of course, as in all things in Belize, this situation is subject to change.
To apply for residency, you will need:
1. An immigration deposit of US$300 to $600, depending on your present country of residence. For citizens of the U.S. and Canada, the fee is $300; for citizens of European countries, $600. In theory this fee will be refunded should you leave Belize, but don't count on it. This fee is per head of household, not for each family member.
2. A certificate of health including an AIDS test. Low-cost medical exams are available in Mexico, including at the border at Chetumal, and these are acceptable in Belize.
3. A clearance letter from the police department in the place where you have lived for at least six months. The police will take your fingerprints and run a check on you. If nothing criminal turns up, you'll get a clearance letter. There's usually a nominal fee, around $5 to $15. Don't move to Belize and then plan to get a clearance letter, as you'll have to live in Belize for at least six months before the police there can issue one.
4. A statement from your bank or other financial institution showing your account balances. There is no fixed amount needed, but in general you need to show you have some resources or income.
5. Birth certificate, marriage certificate, and three passport-size photos.
Note that this process is for residency only. You are not applying for Belizean citizenship or a Belize passport.
You may be able to get your residency application by mail, but the quickest and surest way is to go in person to the Immigration office in Belmopan. For further information, contact:
Director, Immigration & Nationality Department
Tel. 011-501-8-22423, fax 011-501-8-22662
SIDEBAR: OTHER OPTIONS
Two other options for residency may, or may not, be possible in the future:
Purchase of a Belize passport. This has been common in the past. Some 60 applications, mostly from Hong Kong Chinese, made under the former PUP government, have been processed by the current UDP government. It is possible, for reasons of generating new revenue, the government may decide to reestablish this policy. The going rate averages US$25,000.
New retiree laws. There has been talk of new laws for encouraging retirement and investment in Belize, but not much yet has come of it. Belize has ambitions to become an offshore banking haven, and laws implementing some of this, such as the International Business Corporation law, already have gone into effect. With the Belize government badly needing new sources of revenues, it is possible that a new retiree program, similar to the now-defunct pensionado program in Costa Rica, may be written into law. BELIZE FIRST will be doing follow-up stories on this.
* * * BELIZE BUSINESS PRIMER * * *
Here, from Government of Belize, U.S. Trade Dept. and other sources, is a primer on business in Belize:
PRIORITIES FOR DEVELOPMENT:
Belize's Investment Code lists agriculture, tourism, aquaculture and horticulture, light manufacturing and assembly, deep-sea fishing and processing, and forestry-based industries as priorities for development.
There are several options for international executives establishing a business presence in Belize: joint ventures, partnerships, sole proprietorships and subsidiaries or branches of foreign companies. The majority of foreign enterprises in Belize are either sole proprietorships or partnerships. Belize International Business Corporations (see below) cannot own land in Belize or do business with Belize residents.
The 1990 Fiscal Incentives Act and Export Processing Zone Act improved the importation and investment climate in Belize by providing special tax exemption to investments deemed beneficial to the country's development. Accordingly, investments which will enhance and expand Belize's export potential are encouraged. There is also a market in Belize for such U.S. exports as foodstuffs, construction materials, consumer goods, automobile and agricultural supplies and equipment, and high-technology products.
Agents and Distributors: Under Belize's Investment Code, foreign entities are restricted from conducting merchandising/retail sales. Consequently, most foreign enterprises hire local representatives to simplify the importing process, especially for foodstuffs. Laws regarding agent-principal relationships in Belize are straightforward and similar to those in other British Commonwealth states.
Distributors in Belize purchase goods from foreign manufacturers to sell in the Belizean market. Distributors, unlike agents, are legally independent of the manufacturers from whom they purchase goods. They are free to market foreign goods without interference from the manufacturer. Distributorship contracts are not specifically addressed in Belizean law and fall under the general jurisdiction of commerce laws.
Import Restrictions: 26 products require import licenses.
Import Duties: Import tariffs are assessed as direct taxes at the point of entry. Belize has adopted the Caribbean Economic Community (CARICOM) Common External Tariff (CET) which ranges from 5 to 45 percent. Some imports also are subject to stamp duties,normally 12 percent. With a development concession under the fiscal incentive act, raw materials used for the production of exports may be imported duty free.
Documentation: Exporters and investors can obtain assistance from the Belize Export and Investment Promotion Unit of the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry in order to secure export rights to Belize.
The government allows for 100 percent foreign ownership of an enterprise but encourages investment projects to have some form of Belizean element, usually in the form of a joint venture.
The Alien Landholding Act of 1973 was designed to discourage land speculation. As such, it dictates that any foreigner wishing to purchase more than 1/2 acre of urban land or more than 10 acres of rural land must first submit a development plan and application to the Lands Office in the Ministry of Natural Resources. The plan must detail the intended use of a specific parcel of land and the government is generally quick to grant such requests for legitimate, productive projects. The property is first granted on a leasehold basis for three years and then, if conditions of the original development plan are met, the lease is changed to a freehold title.
Exchange Controls: The Central Bank of Belize (or other authorized commercial banks) is responsible for controlling foreign currency transactions. The Central Bank must grant permission for an entity to retain a substantial amount of foreign currency. The repatriation of earnings and dividends is guaranteed. To encourage the retention or reinvestment of capital within Belize, the Central Bank (which also controls interest rates on savings and time deposits) generally sets national interest rates at higher levels than those found in the United States. Notwithstanding this, the U.S. dollar, fixed at two to one to the Belize dollar, is widely used in Belize, and U.S. dollars are held by most Belize businesses.
The Government of Belize encourages investments which utilize indigenous raw material resources, produce exportable goods and contribute to the employment of Belizean nationals. However, foreign investors are generally not permitted to operate in the following areas: merchandising/distributive trades, commercial fishing inside the Barrier Reef, sugar cane cultivation, internal transportation, restaurants