The truth of the matter is, without these two groups (retirees and visitors), Belize would come close to collapsing.
In addition to it's tourist-based economy, Belize has a pretty good export economy (though they are overall net importers) that hinges on fruit (bananas, papayas, and mangoes especially), fish (mostly shrimp and lobster), and sugar (as molasses). But the threat of disease (Panama Disease and Black Sigatoka for bananas, HLB-Greening for citrus, etc.), the significant stock reductions in shrimp and lobster due to overfishing (lobster and conch) and disease, (shrimp), and a low-sugar quality all are risks that can't be easily deterred or remedied. Imports include machinery, fuels/lubricants, manufactured goods, and food. Yes, food.
The Mennonites in Belize produce most of the local food. Farmland, cattle, chicken (and eggs), and wheat. They are also the most recognized local source for wood used in construction and their own style of ready-made homes. They also have the only productive oil rig in the country. If they decide to leave Belize, as they did in Mexico decades ago, this country would be in dire straights.
Absent the Mennonites, there is no true, productive industrial base in the country. Small production exists in the garment industry but the preponderance of jobs is in the service industries followed by agriculture, The primary reason for this is labor rates here (US$1.50/hr) far surpass those of neighboring Mexico (US$.60/hr) and Guatemala (US$1/hr). It's far cheaper (and easier) to pay transportation and importation fees.
With a country about the size of Massachusetts yet with a population of only 320+ thousand, there is no tax base to improve the basic infrastructure requirements businesses (especially industrial businesses) need to be competitive. Despite a 12.5% Government Services Tax (GST), which the IMF recommends be increased to 15%, Belize collects little in the way of other taxes. Instead they rely on import duties and foreign Government handouts. One thing Belize has yet to learn is that a Value Added Real Estate Tax could put a lot of money into their hands but at the risk of making Belize less enticing to future home-owning retirees. (e.g, a friend's property recently sold for more than US$500K yet annual taxes were less than US$200/yr).
The poverty rate is in excess of 40%, so the Belize Government has their work cut out for them. They are learning that throwing money at the poverty problem (2.9% of GDP at last report) doesn't do much to solve the underlying factors. Although number two in Central America for per capita income, there is a 19% or so unemployment rate and the marked disparity between rich and poor brings a wealth of social unrest. As well, the inflation rate here is about 3%. Even with price controls on basic foodstuffs (rice, flour, milk, etc.) this isn't likely to go down anytime soon putting more pressure on an already burdened citizenry.
The police and judiciary are corrupt. Anyone who has had a run-in with either group will support this statement. Cops and judges can be bought, victims and witnesses can be coerced to not testify, and each Government functionary is the king of his/her own fiefdom. Expats and locals alike have to work around "the best that money can buy" to get things done.
A recently published report in the Washington Times compared Belize to the Cayman Islands. A fair comparison based on each country's respective history. Sadly, yet correctly, the author determined that Government corruption is endemic here.
"There is no reason any country has to remain poor. Countries are not poor because of climate,
lack of natural resources or race. [...]. Those countries that are still relatively poor are poor
because they have not put in place the necessary institutions, political structures and policies."
None of which I see changing anytime soon.
Does this dose of pragmatism mean I'm considering leaving? Everyone living overseas should have an exit strategy so I'm developing mine. But implementation will not be anytime soon by my choice. Belizeans overall are a friendly people, the country is beautiful, the weather tropical, and I'm quite happy here. There are more than enough opportunities for me to stay busy on my own, engaged with the local community, and enjoy a rich and productive life. Permanent Residency status has opened doors and the more I look behind each, the more opportunities present. Life is good.
In the words of Douglas Adams, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”