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In 2004, the ruling Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) denied allegations of having received illegal contributions during the 2002 parliamentary election. On the international front, the Bahamas worked to balance closer relations with both the United States and Cuba.
The Bahamas, a 700-island archipelago in the Caribbean, gained independence in 1973 and is part of the British Commonwealth. Lynden Pindling served as the country's first prime minister and head of the PLP for 25 years. After years of allegations of corruption and involvement by high officials in narcotics trafficking, Pindling was defeated by the Free National Movement (FNM) in 1992. His successor, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham promised honesty, efficiency, and accountability in government. The FNM captured 32 seats in the House of Assembly, while the PLP took 17 seats.
In the 1997 legislative elections, Ingraham took credit for revitalizing the economy by attracting foreign investment and his FNM won 34 seats to the PLP's 6. In April 1997, Pindling resigned as opposition leader and was replaced by Perry Christie.
In the May 2002 parliamentary poll, the PLP won 29 seats, while the FNM received only 8. Ingraham retired from politics, fulfilling a promise he had made prior to the elections. He was replaced as prime minister by Christie who, while not as popular as Ingraham, was able to capitalize on the large majority of the PLP. Christie and Ingraham are close personal friends and business partners, a possible indication of why the new prime minister's economic and political policies do not diverge much from those of his predecessor's.
Rising crime rates in the late 1990s, which undermined the early accomplishments of the Ingraham government, were linked to illegal trafficking in narcotics and gunrunning. Ingraham is credited with having subsequently improved the country's international reputation with policies that reduced money laundering and improved counternarcotics cooperation with the United States. His administration established a new anti-drug intelligence unit and announced plans to bring the financial sector into full compliance with international standards and practices by strengthening requirements to report suspicious and unusual transactions. The Bahamas has promoted tourism and allowed the banking industry to grow; both practices have made the country's economy one of the Caribbean's most affluent.
However, the Christie administration has not been able to effectively curb narcotics trafficking, and the incidence of violent crime associated with drug-gang activity has escalated. In addition, the offshore financial system, despite having undergone reforms, continues to be used for illicit purposes. Several banks have been named in U.S. fraud cases, while at least two individuals have been convicted on fraud and forgery charges.
In August 2004, Christie was urged to disclose his knowledge of illegal contributions to the PLP coffers in the 2002 race. The Coalition for Democratic Reform (CDR) and the FNM - the main opposition parties - have joined in this call. The PLP responded with a statement indicating that the political donations were not illegal or improper and that neither the party nor its leaders were for sale.
A confrontation with the U.S. ambassador over counternarcotics policies was resolved when the issues were largely addressed. The Bahamas continued to make efforts at building closer ties with the United States, responding positively to a request from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to place armed sky marshals on selected flights. At the same time, the country was under pressure from the U.S. government to reduce existing ties with Cuba. Bahamians are, however, sensitive to the perception that their international policy is determined by Washington and have continued to maintain independent foreign relations, including upgrading relations with Cuba by announcing that a Bahamian consul general will be appointed to Havana in 2004-2005.
The year 2004 witnessed the destructiveness of the hurricane season, which caused more than $125 million in damages to the islands' infrastructure.
Citizens of the Bahamas can change their government democratically. There is a 49-member House of Assembly, directly elected for five years, and a 16-member Senate. The prime minister appoints 9 members; the leader of the parliament opposition, 4; and the governor-general, 3. The assembly was subsequently reduced to 40 members, in keeping with a campaign promise by the FNM. Political parties can organize freely.
The Bahamas was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Daily and weekly newspapers, all privately owned, express a variety of views on public issues, as do the government-run radio station and four privately owned radio broadcasters. Opposition politicians claim that the state-run television system, the Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas, gives preferential coverage to the ruling party. Full freedom of expression is constrained by strict libel laws. There is free access to the Internet.
Rights to religious and academic freedom are respected.
Constitutional guarantees of the right to organize civic organizations are generally respected, and human rights organizations have broad access to institutions and individuals. Labor, business, and professional organizations are generally free from governmental interference. Unions have the right to strike, and collective bargaining is prevalent.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and a court of appeals, with the right of appeal under certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. Some progress has been reported in reducing both the length of court cases and the backlog of criminal appeals. Nevertheless, some murder suspects have been held for up to four years before being brought to trial.
Violent crime is a continuing concern and a focus of Prime Minister Perry Christie's government. Nongovernmental organizations have documented the occasional abuse of prisoners, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention. The Royal Bahamas Police Force has made progress in reducing corruption in the force, including introducing new procedures to limit unethical or illegal conduct. While the police have been recognized for their key role in regional efforts to stem the drug trade, coordination with the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) has presented difficulties that reflect general ambivalence about the RBDF's role in law enforcement.
Although the Ingraham administration made important efforts to relieve prison overcrowding, there are persistent reports that it continues, and poor medical facilities are still the norm. Children continue to be housed with adults, and there have been reports of sexual abuse.
The Bahamas is an accessible transit area for illegal aliens seeking entrance to the United States. No laws specifically address trafficking in persons, but there are also no reports of such activity. The Bahamian government forcibly repatriates most asylum seekers, including Haitians and Cubans.
Discrimination against persons of Haitian descent persists, and between 30,000 and 40,000 Haitians reside illegally in the Bahamas. Strict citizenship requirements and a stringent work permit system leave Haitians with few rights. There is no legislation regulating the processing of asylum seekers, whose influx has created social tension because of the strain on government services.
Violence against women is a widespread problem, and child abuse and neglect remain serious issues of concern.