Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize was the UK's last colony on the American mainland and still maintains strong ties with Britain.
It did not attain independence until 1981, when it became a Commonwealth realm with the British monarch as its head of state. English is still the official language, although Spanish is the most commonly spoken first language.
Although Belize is distinguished from its neighbours in being the only country in the region with a British colonial heritage, it also has strong ties to Latin America as well as to the Caribbean.
Andy Palacio, who died in 2008, spearheaded a revival of Central America's Garifuna culture
Its society is extremely diverse, and comprises many cultures and languages. The biggest single ethnic group is the Mestizos, who are of mixed Maya Indian and Spanish ancestry. There are also Creoles, who speak a Creole dialect of English and are often of African and African-European extraction, and Garifuna, who are descended from Carib Indians and Africans, as well as a number of smaller ethnic groups.
The number of Mestizos increased significantly during the 1980s as a result of conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which triggered an influx of Mestizo refugees into Belize.
Belize's independence was delayed by a long-running border dispute with Guatemala, which refused to recognise its neighbour's independence until 1992. The two countries have yet to settle the territorial issue, which has its roots in the colonial era.
In addition to its strong ties with Britain and the United States, Belize has recently also forged closer links with Latin American countries such as Mexico and Venezuela.
In common with many Caribbean economies, the service sector has overtaken agriculture, fishing and forestry.
Tourism is a major source of foreign currency. Belize's attractions include wildlife, Mayan ruins and one of the longest barrier reefs in the world. More than 200 islands nestle inside the reef.
Cruise ship arrivals have seen a massive increase in recent years. But tourism has its price; among the challenges facing Belize is the threat to the habitats of its mammals and birds.
Also, Belize has a problem with violent crime, much of it drug-related, and the trafficking of narcotics to the US. In 2011 Belize was added to a US blacklist of countries considered to be major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs.
- Full name: Belize
- Population: 318,000 (UN, 2011)
- Capital: Belmopan
- Area: 22,965 sq km (8,867 sq miles)
- Major languages: English (official), Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna (Carib), Creole
- Major religion: Christianity
- Life expectancy: 75 years (men), 78 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Belizean dollar = 100 cents
- Main exports: Sugar, bananas, citrus fruits, oil, clothing, fish products, molasses, wood
- GNI per capita: US$3,810 (World Bank, 2010)
- Internet domain: .bz
- International dialling code: +501
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor
Prime minister: Dean Barrow
PM Dean Barrow was elected on an anti-corruption platform
Dean Barrow's United Democratic Party (UDP) won the general election in February 2008 and again in March 2012.
Mr Barrow is Belize's first black prime minister. A leading lawyer, he was elected to parliament in 1984 and served in senior positions in UDP governments until the PUP won a landslide in 1998. He then led the party in opposition until its victory at the polls in 2008.
In the 2008 vote he unseated the People's United Party (PUP) government of Said Musa, which had been in power for 10 years.
The PUP was the driving force behind independence and won 10 of the 12 elections since Belize first elected a legislative assembly under British rule in 1954. In the last years of Mr Musa's government the PUP had been rocked by allegations of corruption.
Belize has no daily newspapers; some weeklies are subsidised by political parties.
Radio listeners rely on a range of commercial outlets, most of them networked nationwide.
Privately-owned TV stations are on the air and cable TV is available in the towns.
The constitution guarantees media freedom, but provides exceptions in the interest of national security, public order and morality.
There were 60,000 internet users by September 2009 (Internetworldstats).
- Love FM - commercial, music and news
- Estereo Amor - private, Spanish-language
- Krem FM - private, commercial
- Wave Radio - affiliated to United Democratic Party
- Vibes Radio - affiliated to People's United Party