Freedom in the World

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3
Ratings Change: 


Trinidad and Tobago's political rights and civil liberties ratings declined from 2 to 3, and its status changed from Free to Partly Free, due to a virtual breakdown in the parliamentary system as a result of two disputed national elections, growing corruption, and continued problems with the police.

Overview: 


At the end of 2001, Trinidad and Tobago was plunged into a major political crisis after Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of the United National Congress (UNC) was forced to turn power over to his bitter foe, Patrick Manning of the People's National Movement (PNM), following a disputed December 10, 2001, election. Both the UNC and the PNM had captured 18 of parliament's 36 seats, and a post-election truce agreed to by Panday and Manning resulted in President Arthur Robinson, whose post is largely ceremonial, being allowed to decide the winner, a choice both contenders swore to abide by. However, after Robinson chose Manning, Panday accused the president of violating the constitution and backed out of the deal, calling for new elections. Declaring the weekold Manning administration to be illegitimate, Panday refused to agree to a speaker for parliament, thereby preventing the new legislature from going into session.

The announcement of the December general elections, the second such poll in a year, came after three cabinet ministers were sacked for criticizing Panday's handling of alleged corruption at a government agency that runs state hospitals and the state oil company, Petrotrin. Throughout the year, the Panday government never appeared to recover from a 55-day stalemate that brought government to a virtual standstill in the aftermath of the December 2000 elections, an impasse that was finally ended on February 14, 2001, when Robinson agreed to appoint seven defeated UNC candidates to the senate, as demanded by the British-trained Panday. The open conflict of powers between the two men--a confrontation that deepened after Panday's UNC won another term in the elections--was considered by most independent observers to put a great strain on the country's institutional stability. When the oil-rich republic went to the polls in December for a second time in a year, local business leaders expressed concern about the effect the political standoff would have on Trinidad and Tobago's booming economy.

Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence in 1962. The 1976 constitution established the two-island nation as a republic, with a president elected by a majority of both houses of parliament, replacing the former governor- general. Executive authority remains vested in the prime minister. The bicameral parliament consists of a 36-member house of representatives elected for five years and a 31-member senate, with 25 senators appointed by the prime minister and 6 by the opposition.

In the 1986 elections, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a coalition led by Robinson that bridged traditional political differences between black and East Indian communities, soundly defeated the black-based People's National Movement (PNM), which had ruled for 30 years. The coalition unraveled when Panday, the country's most prominent East Indian politician, was expelled; he then formed the East Indian-based UNC.

In July 1991, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, a small radical Muslim group, staged a coup attempt in Port of Spain. The prime minister and eight cabinet members were held hostage for four days, and 23 people died in bombings at the police headquarters, the state television station, and the parliamentary building.

At the beginning of the 1990s, tensions increased between black and East Indian communities, each roughly 40 percent of the population, as the latter edged towards numerical, and thus political, advantage. In December 1991 Patrick Manning led the PNM to victory by taking 21 of 36 parliamentary seats. Manning's government deregulated the economy and floated the currency, but the social costs of these economic reforms caused the PNM's popularity to decline.

Manning called snap elections for November 6, 1995. Voting ran largely along ethnic lines, with East Indians voting overwhelmingly for the UNC and blacks for the PNM. Each party won 17 seats on Trinidad. The NAR retained its two seats on Tobago. The NAR entered into a coalition with the UNC in exchange for a ministerial position for former Prime Minister Robinson and a promise of greater autonomy for Tobago. UNC leader Panday, a lawyer and former trade unionist, became Trinidad's first prime minister of East Indian descent.

In March 1996 Robinson was elected president. In 1997 there were growing accusations about sweetheart contracts and patronage jobs, and Panday responded by assailing the "lies, half truths and innuendoes" of the opposition press.

In 1999, the Panday government brushed aside criticism from international human rights groups and allowed ten of the more than 100 prisoners on death row to be hanged, in part out of concern over the islands' growing drug trade. The local appeal of the move was underscored when the government used the day that the first three men were executed to announce the holding of local elections the following month. Despite the move, the PNM, led by former Prime Minister Manning, made strong gains in the July 12 vote, in a contest marked by appeals along racial lines. On New Year's Eve 1999, the chairman of a regional development corporation, who had criticized corruption in the government's unemployment program, was murdered after complaining to Panday that his local government minister had made threats against him.

During his first five-year term in office, Panday presided over an oil- and gas-rich economy that had become the powerhouse among the smaller nations of the Caribbean basin. However, in the bitterly contested December 2000 elections, that record was clouded by worries about increasing drug crime and the country's growing reputation as a way station for Colombian cartels shipping cocaine northward to the United States. Following a campaign marred by opposition claims of electoral corruption and worries about an upsurge of violent crime, Panday's UNC won 19 parliamentary seats to the PNM's 16, with the NAR winning 1 of the 2 on the island of Tobago. The hard-fought contest boosted electoral participation by 13 percent--76 percent of the nation's 947,447 eligible voters cast ballots--with a large number of young people turning out to vote. The intractable ethnic divide between the islands' East Indian and African communities also helped to keep the vote close. In the aftermath of his party's defeat, Manning said he was considering charges against two victorious UNC candidates who, he said, had filed false nominating petitions as a result of holding dual citizenship. The PNM also claimed that the UNC had tried to pad voter rolls in highly competitive districts. Panday's swearing-in ceremony was delayed by nine days because of recounts in several constituencies and the threat of legal action by the PNM. On December 31, 2000, President Robinson refused to swear in six nominees to Panday's cabinet who had been defeated in the election, saying such appointments "undermine democracy."

During 2001, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, one of the most radical Islamic organizations in the Americas, came under increased scrutiny. On September 19, a man with ties to the Trinidadian organization, which authorities say they believe is linked to international terrorist Osama bin Laden, pled guilty in U.S. federal court in Fort Lauderdale to unlawful possession of a machine gun. U.S. officials say that the man, who was detained in a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sting operation, had come to Florida to buy as many as sixty AK-47 assault rifles and ten MAC-10 submachine guns with silencers.

In July 2001, Panday lashed out at a Transparency International report that rated Trinidad, for the first time, as a country with high levels of official corruption. The group put Trinidad 31st out of 91 countries on its index of corruption, with a rating of 5.3 out of 10. Panday, who is already engaged in a long-running feud with prominent members of the local press, denied that there was corruption in his administration and claimed that Transparency International was repeating "rumors and propaganda that are being spread about my country."

As a result of the 2000 electoral schism, political wrangling between the two major parties continued throughout 2001. During the short year-end campaign, Manning promised to reduce personal and corporate taxes, increase spending on the elderly, and settle a billion-dollar salary arrearage with more than 40,000 public servants. The UNC pointed to economic growth averaging around four percent since the party came to office in 1995. In the run-up to the December 10 vote, a new political party, Team Unity, headed by a former deputy political director of the UNC, fielded 30 candidates for the parliamentary election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can change their government democratically, although the disputed 2000 and 2001 elections were emblematic of the racial tensions that continued to dominate electoral contests. The UNC's narrow win in the 2000 contest led the opposition to accuse it of registering hundreds of voters in districts where they did not live. In response, the government allocated $1.6 million to clean up the electoral lists.

The judiciary is independent, although subject to some political pressure, and the Privy Council in London serves as the recourse of ultimate appeal. As a result of rising crime rates, the court system is severely backlogged, in some cases for up to five years, with an estimated 20,000 criminal cases awaiting trial. Prisons are grossly overcrowded; the government does permit visits to them by human rights monitors, who in general operate freely. There are more than 100 prisoners on death row.

In May 1999, the government withdrew as a state party from the American Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits countries from extending the death penalty beyond those crimes for which it was in effect at the time the treaty was ratified. In June three men, including the reputed drug lord Dole Chadee, were hanged for their role in the 1994 murder of a couple and their two children--the first executions in five years--and their executions were followed by seven more within a month. In June 2000, the country withdrew entirely from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amnesty International, at odds with Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's government over the death penalty, charged that "as a consequence ... international human rights experts will no longer be able to examine the claims of those aggrieved citizens who may have suffered violations of their most fundamental rights."

Street crime is on the rise, with the consumption and trafficking of illegal drugs considered to be largely responsible for the increase in violent crime. Some estimates suggested that 80 percent of all crimes committed are narcotics related. The increasing frequency with which illicit drugs are used on the islands has been accompanied by significant growth of the drug trade. The islands' close proximity to South America make them ideal staging areas for cocaine traveling both by land and by sea into the United States and Europe. Drug corruption extends to Trinidad and Tobago's business community and a significant amount of money is believed to be laundered through front companies. There have been more than two dozen drug-related killings in recent years on the islands, including the still unsolved murder of former Attorney General Selwyn Richardson. Recently legislation was approved that provides severe penalties for money laundering and requires that major financial transactions be strictly monitored. The government works closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies to track drug shipments in and out of the country. The Panday government has won some points for its antidrug efforts and has been a principal proponent of a regional witness-protection program. It has also signed several antinarcotics accords with the United States.

Corruption in the police force--often drug-related--is endemic, and law enforcement inefficiency results in the dismissal of some criminal cases. In December 2000, Panday admitted that, despite government efforts to finance reforms, something was "fundamentally wrong" with the police force. The police have won praise, however, for recently establishing a branch of Crime Stoppers, an international organization that promotes community involvement in preventing and informing on crime through a hot line.

The press is privately owned and vigorous and offers pluralistic views; the broadcast media are both private and public. Panday's own relationship with the press, however, has been rocky. In May 1997, the government floated a restrictive journalistic code of conduct that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago said led to instances in which reporters and other press workers were physically attacked. In 1998, Panday's refusal to allow the renewal of the work permit of a respected Barbadian broadcaster became a regional cause celebre. Panday also reiterated his refusal to sign the Inter- American Press Association's Chapultepec Declaration on press freedom until it addressed instances of media dissemination of "lies, half-truths and innuendoes." In April 1999, Information Minister Rupert Griffith reminded the media of the government's power to grant and revoke broadcast licenses and warned that local media operations were being examined "under a microscope." In 2000, a high-court judge ordered Panday to pay newspaper publisher Ken Gordon, an Afro-Trinidadian, $120,000 for defamation, after Panday had called him a "pseudo-racist."

Domestic violence and other violence against women is extensive and remains a low priority for police and prosecutors. However, in a 1999 landmark ruling, the court of appeals overturned a death sentence and reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter in the case of a woman the court said suffered from battered-wife syndrome. Persons infected with HIV/AIDS are the focus of community ostracism and governmental neglect.

Freedom of association and assembly is respected. Labor unions are well organized, powerful, and politically active, although union membership has declined. Strikes are legal and occur frequently.