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Antigua and Barbuda
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In 2001, the government of Prime Minister Lester Bird made good on its promise to improve the regulation of Antigua and Barbuda's booming offshore financial center, and was awarded a stamp of approval from the United States. Two years earlier, Washington had warned U.S. banks that they needed to take special precautions when dealing with the two-island nation, an advisory that cost the offshore banking industry dearly. In June, Bird bowed to mounting pressure and agreed to appoint an independent commission to investigate corruption allegations against a medical health plan, a payback scandal that had already cost three government ministers their jobs, as well as resulting in the firing of the entire government board of the health plan.
Antigua and Barbuda is a member of the Commonwealth. The British monarchy is represented by a governor-general. The islands gained independence in 1981. Under the 1981 constitution, the political system is a parliamentary democracy, with a bicameral parliament consisting of a 17-member house of representatives elected for five years and an appointed senate. In the house, there are 16 seats for Antigua and 1 for Barbuda. Eleven senators are appointed by the prime minister, four by the parliamentary opposition leader, one by the Barbuda Council, and one by the governor-general.
Dominated by the Bird family and the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), rule has been based more on power and the abuse of authority than on law. The constitution has been consistently disregarded. The Bird tenure has also been marked by scandals ranging from Antigua's role as a transshipment center for South American cocaine destined for the United States and Europe, to its involvement in arms smuggling for the Colombian cartels, to its importance as a money laundering center.
In 1994 Vere Bird, patriarch of the most prominent family, stepped down as prime minister in favor of his son Lester. In the run-up to the 1994 election, three opposition parties united to form the United Progressive Party (UPP). The UPP campaigned on a social-democratic platform emphasizing rule of law and good governance. In the election, the ALP won 11 of 17 parliamentary seats, down from 15 in 1989, while the UPP won 5, up from 1.
After taking office as prime minister, Lester Bird promised cleaner, more efficient government. However, his administration continued to be dogged by scandals. In 1995 Bird's brother, Ivor, was convicted of smuggling cocaine into the country, but received only a fine.
The country's thriving offshore banking industry was the target of international concerns about inadequate regulation and vetting that had led to a surge in questionable banking operations, a number with alleged links to Russian organized crime. In 1998, Antigua and Barbuda's offshore industry, serviced by some 50 loosely regulated banks, was rocked by public disclosure of what the U.S. Customs Service called the biggest non-narcotics money-laundering racket it had ever uncovered. A crackdown in 1999 on Russian-owned banks (six were closed down in 1998) highlighted the problems of banking secrecy and a local reluctance to cooperate with foreign law enforcement.
The March 1999 elections provided Bird with a strong vote of confidence for policies that have made the two-island nation one of the region's most prosperous. The ALP won 12 of the 17 parliamentary seats; the UPP, 4; and the Barbuda People's Movement retained its single seat. In 2000, Antigua began moving to rein in its offshore financial industry, following pressure for greater international cooperation from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) based in Paris. In recent years it had become increasingly apparent that Antigua's democratic institutions have been threatened by individuals who infiltrated government bodies as a means of weakening fledgling money laundering and offshore business controls. In 2001 the head of the Barbuda council complained that the Antigua government was using "big fist" tactics to dominate the small island.
Constitutionally, citizens are able to change their government by democratic means. However, the ruling party's long-standing monopoly on patronage and its power to provide access to economic opportunities make it difficult for opposition parties to attract membership and financial support. Political parties, labor unions, and civic organizations are free to organize. In 1999, an international observer group noted that the national voter registry included 52,348 names, out of a total population of some 69,000 people, a number that appeared inflated given that an estimated 40 percent of the population is below voting age. This anomaly was even more glaring given that the country's week-long registration period for new voters is restrictive and appears to disenfranchise potential participants in elections.
The judiciary, which is part of the eastern Caribbean legal system, is nominally independent, but subject to manipulation by the ruling party; it has been nearly powerless to address corruption in the executive branch. There is an intra-island court of appeals for Antigua and five other former British colonies in the Lesser Antilles. In 2001, the Office of National Drug and Money Laundering Control Policy consolidated the country's financial investigations unit and those dealing with financial and drug intelligence under one roof.
The islands' security forces are composed of the police and the small Antigua and Barbuda Defence Forces. The police, organized, trained, and supervised according to British law enforcement practices, generally respect human rights; basic police reporting statistics, however, are confidential. Conditions at the country's eighteenth-century prison, which was recently privatized, are primitive, and the institution has been criticized for abusing its inmates. These credible reports have been met with a government willingness to both investigate the charges and to take administrative action. The government does permit visits to the prison by independent human rights groups.
The ALP government and the Bird family control the country's television, cable, and radio outlets. Opposition parties claim that they receive limited coverage from, and have little opportunity to express their views on, the government-controlled electronic media. Freedom of religion is respected.
Social discrimination and violence against women are problems; the governmental Directorate of Women's Affairs has sought to increase awareness about women's rights under the law. Child abuse is also a problem; despite the government's often expressed commitment to children's rights, it has done little to protect those rights in practice.
The Industrial Court mediates labor disputes, but public-sector unions tend to be under the sway of the ruling party. Demonstrators are occasionally subject to harassment by the police, who are politically tied to the ruling party.