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St. Vincent and Grenadines
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In March 2001 elections, the social democratic Unity Labour Party (ULP) won a landslide upset, capturing 12 of the 15 contested parliamentary seats. The incumbent conservative New Democrat Party (NDP) won only 3 seats. Ralph Gonsalves, a lawyer, became the new prime minister. The election, which had been preceded by serious political unrest and mobilization, was monitored by international election observers for the first time in the country’s history. An August 2001 trip to Libya by a mission headed by Gonsalves from the nine-member Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), while claiming to have secured $20 million in financial aid for the region, was criticized particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks as having strengthened strongman Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s long-time interests in the region.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a member of the Commonwealth, with the British monarchy represented by a governor-general. St. Vincent achieved independence in 1979, with jurisdiction over the northern Grenadine islets of Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, Prune Island, Petit St. Vincent, and Union Island.
The constitution provides for a 15-member unicameral house of assembly elected for five years. Six senators are appointed—four by the government and two by the opposition. The prime minister is the leader of the party or coalition commanding a majority in the house.
In 1994, Prime Minister Sir James F. Mitchell, the son of a seafarer who vanished in the Bermuda Triangle, won a third term as prime minister when his center-right NDP won 12 seats. The center-left alliance, comprising the St. Vincent Labour Party (SVLP), which had held power from 1979 to 1984, and the Movement for National Unity (MNU), won the remaining 3 seats. The opposition contested the results, charging that voter registration irregularities had occurred.
In 1995, Deputy Prime Minister Parnel Campbell faced charges of financial impropriety when, disregarding government regulations, he took a loan from an offshore bank. With the opposition parties, now united into the ULP, pressing for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, Campbell resigned. In 1998, Mitchell took advantage of internal divisions within the opposition to announce elections a year earlier than expected. Mitchell led the NDP to a narrow victory in the June 15, 1998, general elections, winning 8 seats to 7 for the ULP. The vote was marked by opposition accusations of fraud, bribery, and intimidation, and the ULP claimed it would have won the contest if a proportional representation system—instead of the first-past-the-post framework copied from Britain—had been used. (The ULP won a minority of seats, but took 55 percent of the vote.) The ULP delayed its recognition of the NDP’s unprecedented fourth successive win and staged street demonstrations demanding new elections. In response, the government began discussions with the opposition about constitutional reforms centering on electoral reform.
In April 2000, passage of legislation raising the pensions of retired members of parliament set off a new round of street protests. In September, an offshore bank stripped of its government license demanded that Mitchell and six other officials return loans, gifts, and campaign contributions it alleges it gave them as payoffs, a charge Mitchell denied. A new political party, the People's Progressive Movement (PPM), was created by two former ULP members of parliament in preparation for the 2001 elections. Marijuana cultivation and narcotics smuggling remain major concerns.
In October 2000, the ailing Mitchell, who had led the Windward Islands nation since 1986, relinquished the reins of government and the leadership of the NDP to Arnhim Eustace, his finance minister and chosen successor. Sir Mitchell was the second-longest-serving head of government in the Caribbean—after Fidel Castro—but had won all but one election in the ten times he stood for election. Earlier in the year a group of opposition political parties and social organizations formed the Organization for the Defense of Democracy (ODD) in response to what it called Mitchell's abuse of power and cronyism.
The result was an agreement—the Grand Beach accord—brokered by the Caribbean regional group Caricom that called for new elections no later than March 2001, two years ahead of schedule, and helped to avoid further street demonstrations that Mitchell worried would damage his legacy as well as the country's record of stability.
Gonsalves, a one-time radical opposition figure, in 2001 led an initiative to save the financially ailing OECS by strengthening the organization in order to relieve administrative requirements now carried out by its individual members. Upon his return from Libya, Gonsalves was criticized for not revealing publicly that the Arab nation had promised to buy all the bananas that the Caribbean could produce.
Citizens can change their government through elections. The March 2001 election was considered free and fair by international observers. The judicial system is independent. The highest court is the West Indies Supreme Court (based in St. Lucia), which includes a court of appeals and a high court. A right of ultimate appeal reports, under certain circumstances, to the Privy Council in London. Murder convictions carry a mandatory death sentence.
Penetration by the hemispheric drug trade is increasingly causing concern. There have been allegations of drug-related corruption within the government and the police force, and of money laundering in St. Vincent banks. The drug trade has also caused an increase in street crime. In 1995 the U.S. government described St. Vincent as becoming a drug-trafficking center and alleged that high-level government officials are involved in narcotics-related corruption. Since then, St. Vincent has taken steps to cooperate with U.S. antidrug trade efforts, such as signing an extradition treaty in 1996 with the United States. In December 1999, a marijuana eradication effort in St. Vincent's northern mountains stirred up controversy after U.S.-trained troops from the Regional Security System (RSS) were accused of brutality and indiscriminate crop destruction in what the Barbados-based RSS claimed was a highly successful exercise. One person, who police said was fleeing from a search scene armed with a shotgun, was killed.
Human rights are generally respected. In 1999 a local human rights organization accused police of using excessive force and illegal search and seizure, and of improperly informing detainees of their rights in order to extract confessions. The regional human rights organization, Caribbean Rights, estimates that 90 percent of convictions in St. Vincent are based on confessions.
The independent St. Vincent Human Rights Association has criticized long judicial delays and the large backlog of cases caused by personnel shortages in the local judiciary. It has also charged that the executive at times exerts inordinate influence over the courts. Prison conditions remain poor—one prison designed for 75 inmates houses more than 400—and prisons are the target of allegations of mistreatment. Juvenile offenders are also housed in inadequate conditions.
The press is independent, with two privately owned independent weeklies—the Vincentian and the News—and several smaller, partisan papers. The opposition has charged the Vincentian with government favoritism. The only television station is privately owned and free from government interference. Satellite dishes and cable are available to those who can afford them. The radio station is government-owned, and call-in programs are prohibited. Equal access to radio is mandated during electoral campaigns, but the ruling party takes inordinate advantage of state control over programming.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, labor unions, and civic organizations are generally respected. Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is a major problem. Labor unions are active and permitted to strike.