Freedom in the World
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Trinidad and Tobago
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Trinidad and Tobago's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2, and its status from Partly Free to Free, because of improvements in economic policies that enhanced equality of opportunity.
Amid an improving economy, the government of Prime Minister Patrick Manning failed to make headway during 2005 in the struggle against dramatic increases in violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago. Despite improvements in economic policies that enhanced equality of opportunity, the country remains captive to tense racial politics characterized by frictions between the African- and Indian-descendent populations. In July, several people were injured by a bomb explosion in the capitol city of Port-of-Spain, followed by three other bombing incidents through the fall, which prompted the government to propose new counterterrorism measures.
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 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 strong showing, which reinforced the dominance of these two parties. Manning was sworn in for the third time since 1991 as the seventh prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago. 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. However, the UNC is 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, refused to step down despite promising to do so when he turned 70 in May 2003. In 2005, the government indicted Panday on corruption charges, and he was temporarily jailed, which added to the country's racial and political tensions. However, Trinidad and Tobago's strong economic performance has led to reduced poverty and improved social equity in the country.
Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen, was arrested in August 2003 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, but was released on bail. He was rearrested in July 2004 on charges of conspiring to murder two former members of his group, including his son-in-law. The jury deadlocked, and he was released pending retrial, but police detained him and several followers once again following the explosion of four bombs that injured nine people in October 2005. They were later released, and it remained unclear whether the bombers were merely engaged in criminal mischief or if the terrorism campaign had a broader political agenda.
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 2005; as of October, there had been 314 murders, up from 222 as of that point in 2004. From 2001 to 2004, the number of kidnappings increased exponentially from 10 to more than 150 a year-out of a population of 1.3 million-and Trinidad and Tobago now has the second-highest rate of abductions in the world after Colombia.
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. Parliament consists of the 36member 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 report that rated Trinidad and Tobago, 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. 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. He has been charged with receiving a $41,000 bribe for an airport improvement project, and his trial has been postponed until early 2006. Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 59 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press outlets are privately owned and vigorous in their pluralistic views. There are four daily newspapers and several weeklies. There are both private and public broadcast media. Panday refused, in 1998, to sign the Inter American Press Association's Declaration of Chapultepec on press freedom until it addressed the media dissemination of "lies, half-truths and innuendoes." Under Prime Minister Patrick 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 is respected. Civil society in Trinidad and Tobago is relatively robust, with a range of interest groups engaged in the political process. 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, and many Indo-Trinidadians, who are disproportionately targets of abduction, blame the increase in violence and kidnappings on government corruption and police collusion. By contrast, the police force has downplayed the threat to average Trinidadians, insisting that most murders and kidnappings are related to the narcotics trade. 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. In 2005, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation deepened its presence in the country to assist in the prosecution of crime.
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. In August 2005, the government sent a controversial antiterrorism bill to parliament; critics say the bill infringes on the right against self-incrimination and may lead to police brutality.
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. Accusations of racial discrimination are often leveled in parliament, and racial disparities persist, with Indo-Trinidadians composing a disproportionate percentage of the country's upper class. However, the country's leadership does alternate among the two dominant parties, and voting does not occur on strict ethnic lines.
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. Gender discrimination is forbidden under the constitution, and women participate in high-level politics. As of 2005, women held 18 of 67 parliament seats and 9 cabinet-level positions. Women are present in the public and private sector, but men still dominate most leadership positions and salary differentials continue to favor men. In June, the government introduced a bill to make it a crime to knowingly spread HIV, but opponents feared that this may discourage people from getting tested and set back prevention efforts.