Freedom in the World
You are here
Trinidad and Tobago
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The government of Prime Minister Patrick Manning did not made any significant headway during 2004 in the struggle against dramatic increases in violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile, the leader of a small radical group who had staged a coup attempt more than a decade earlier was rearrested in July on charges of conspiracy to murder.
Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Britain in 1962. 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.
After disputed elections in December 2001, Patrick Manning was appointed as prime minister. An ensuing stalemate in parliament, with 18 members of each party in a nine-month deadlock, led to street demonstrations and a legal challenge. Manning eventually called for legislative elections in October 2002. The polling was generally peaceful and saw the participation of six parties representing more than 100 candidates contesting the 36 open seats. Manning's People's National Movement (PNM) won 20 seats, while the United National Congress (UNC) had a heavy showing, reinforcing the domination of these two parties. Manning was sworn in for the third time since 1991, as the seventh prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago. His cabinet showed few changes and included his wife, Hazel, who again serves as minister of education; nepotism does not seem to be an issue for the electorate. In previous elections, there were concerns over the impartiality of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, but no major improprieties surfaced during the recent national or local polls. The UNC is, however, opposed to the redrawing of electoral districts as being partisan and favoring the PNM.
In local elections held in July 2003, the PNM won a majority of seats and took control of two districts that had been strongholds of the UNC, which won just 5 of 14 councils. Also during the year, the UNC became increasingly confrontational, forcing Manning's government to compromise when legislation required a two-thirds majority in parliament. Basdeo Panday, leader of the UNC, became increasingly confrontational, refusing to step down from the leadership of his party despite promising to do so when he turned 70 in May 2003.
Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a small radical Muslim group, was arrested in August 2003 on charges of conspiracy to murder, but was released on bail. He was rearrested in July of 2004 on charges that he was conspiring to murder two former members of his group, including his son-in-law. The group had staged a coup attempt in July 1991 in the capital, Port-of-Spain, in which the prime minister and eight cabinet members were held hostage for four days; 23 people died in bombings at the police headquarters, the state television station, and the parliamentary building.
In August, a parliamentary integrity commission was established, an indication of the continuing effort to fight corruption. Meanwhile, growing crime was a critical problem throughout 2004; as of October of, there had been 222 murders, up from 175 in 2003.
Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can change their government democratically. 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 the 36-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and the 31-member Senate, with 25 senators appointed by the prime minister and 6 by the opposition. Political parties are free to organize, but in practice, the dominance of the PNM and UNC has led to a two-party system.
In July 2001, then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of the UNC lashed out at a Transparency International (TI) report that rated Trinidad, for the first time, as a country with high levels of official corruption. Panday, who was engaged in a long-running feud with prominent members of the local press, denied that there was corruption in his administration. Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 51 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. An Integrity Commission, established under the 2000 Integrity in Public Life Act, has the power to investigate the financial and ethical performance of public functionaries; Panday was the first person to be investigated by the commission.
Press outlets are privately owned and vigorous and offer pluralistic views. There are four daily newspapers and several weeklies. The broadcast media are both private and public. Panday refused, in 1998, to sign the Inter American Press Association's Declaration of Chapultepec on press freedom until it addressed instances of media dissemination of "lies, half-truths and innuendoes." Under Prime Minister Manning, the government did not interfere with freedom of speech and the press. There is free access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, and the government honors this provision. Foreign missionaries are free to operate, but the government limits representatives of a denomination to 35. Academic freedom is generally respected.
Freedom of association and assembly are respected. Labor unions are well organized, powerful, and politically active, although union membership has declined. Strikes are legal and occur frequently.
The judicial branch is independent, although subject to some political pressure and corruption. 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. However, the government permits human rights monitors to visit prisons, which are severely overcrowded.
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. Drug corruption extends to the business community, and a significant amount of money is believed to be laundered through front companies. The Proceeds of Crime Act of 2000 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. In an indication of the seriousness of the country's crime wave, in January 2004 the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce asked the government to strictly enforce laws, including the execution of convicted murderers.
Corruption in the police force, which is often drug-related, is endemic, and law enforcement inefficiency results in the dismissal of some criminal cases. The police have won praise, however, for establishing a branch of Crime Stoppers, an international organization that promotes community involvement in preventing and informing on crime through a hotline.
The population is divided into three communities: Afro-Trinidadians, Indo-Trinidadians, and those of mixed race. The Indian community continues to edge towards numerical, and thus political, advantage. The most recent elections are emblematic of the racial tensions that continue to dominate electoral contests. In his speech opening parliament on September 10, 2004, President George Maxwell Richards highlighted the importance of not taking race issues for granted. Efforts to heal the wounds of the 1991 coup continue to characterize Trinidadian politics.
Violence against women is extensive and remains a low priority for police and prosecutors. While serious crimes such as murder and rape are reported, other instances of abuse go unreported. Women are present in the public and private sector, but men still dominate most leadership positions and pay differentials continue to favor the latter. Discrimination is forbidden under the constitution.