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In 2005, the Bahamas maintained its relatively clean record of stable democratic governance. Nevertheless, the country continued to grapple with problems associated with narcotics trafficking and the illicit use of the country's offshore financial system. Meanwhile, the government worked to balance its relations with the United States and Cuba.
The Bahamas, a 700-island archipelago in the Caribbean, gained independence in 1973 and is part of the Commonwealth. Lynden Pindling served as the country's first prime minister and head of the Progressive Liberal Party (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. The number of Assembly seats was reduced to 40 in the next election.
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 7, with independents claiming 4. 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, and the economic and political policies of the Bahamas remained remarkably consistent under both prime ministers.
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 antidrug 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. As the Caribbean's only upper income country, the Bahamas has established a model service economy, based on an impressive tourism sector-which accounts for 30 percent of national income- and offshore financial services.
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 proved difficult to contain. 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 domestically 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 denied that the political donations were illegal or improper, and the issue no longer poses a serious threat to the government.
The Bahamas has prioritized the effort to build closer ties with the United States. The government has allowed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to place armed sky marshals on selected flights between the two countries. At the same time, the nation was under pressure from the U.S. government to reduce existing ties with Cuba. However, Bahamians are 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, although the Bahamas still has not established a full embassy in Havana. Nevertheless, migration to the Bahamas from Cuba and Haiti remains a political flashpoint. In December 2004, a riot occurred at the Carmichael Detention Center, which houses Cubans and Haitians awaiting deportation. Detainees later complained to Amnesty International that they are sometimes beaten and denied sanitation and medical care.
Citizens of the Bahamas can change their government democratically. A 49-member House of Assembly, directly elected for five years, was subsequently reduced to 40 members, in keeping with a campaign promise by the FNM. The 16 members of the Senate are appointed-9 by the prime minister, 4 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and 3 by the governor-general. The head of the majority party in parliament typically serves as prime minister.
Political parties can organize freely. The two leading parties are Free National Movement (FNM), headed by Tommy Turnquest, and the ruling Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), led by Perry Christie; Christie was hospitalized following a stroke in May 2005. The Bahamas recognizes the British monarch as its formal head of state, with an appointed governor general serving as the Queen's representative.
The U.S. views the Bahamas as a key partner in combating drug trafficking, and in November 2005, the two countries renewed a bilateral agreement to continue U.S. funding for narcotics control and law enforcement. The Bahamas was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 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 problem. 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 been hampered by concerns about establishing the RBDF's role in law enforcement.
Although prior governments made important efforts to relieve prison overcrowding, there are persistent reports that this continues to pose a problem for the Christie administration, and poor medical facilities are still the norm. Children continue to be housed with adults, a situation that creates a permissive environment for sexual abuse. May 2005 marked the completed construction of a new "correctional training institute" that will provide job training to inmates and help to separate convict populations sentenced for different crimes.
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. No legislation regulates 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. In the first eight months of 2005, the Ministry of Social Services reported 387 cases of child abuse, including 31 reports of incest, 120 reports of physical abuse, 47 reports of sexual abuse, 177 reports of neglect, 6 reports of verbal abuse, and 6 reports of abandonment. The ministry estimated that only one-third of cases were reported. A high incidence of child labor also continues to be a concern, and children who work face a high risk of sexual exploitation.