Freedom in the World
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Buoyed by the country’s strong economic performance in 2006, the Bahamas’ Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) remained well positioned to win upcoming elections in 2007. Although the Bahamas maintained its relatively clean record of stable democratic governance, the country was not immune to the trends of rising violent crime that affected much of the Caribbean.
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.
In the 1997 legislative elections, in which the number of Assembly seats was reduced from 49 to 40, 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, a short-lived offshoot of the PLP, and the FNM—the main opposition party—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. Although Christie is unlikely to run again, the PLP remained well positioned to triumph in elections due to be called in 2007.
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 has been 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. However, 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. In March 2006, two Cuban dentists whose boat stalled in Bahamian waters en route to the United States were finally released after a year of detention. The government had cited concerns that releasing the refugees to the United States would touch off a wave of Cuban immigrants attempting to reach Florida via the Bahamas.
The Bahamas is an electoral democracy. A 49-member House of Assembly, directly elected for five years, was reduced to 40 members in 1997, 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 Bahamas recognizes the British monarch as its formal head of state, with an appointed governor-general serving as the queen's representative. The head of the majority party in Parliament typically serves as prime minister.
Political parties can organize freely. The two leading parties are the FNM, headed by Tommy Turnquest, and the ruling PLP, led by Perry Christie; Christie was hospitalized following a stroke in May 2005, but has since recovered.
The Bahamas was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Bahamas has a well-developed tradition of respecting freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 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.
The Bahamas guarantees freedom of assembly. 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. In March 2006, the Privy Council ruled that death sentences for individuals convicted of murder in the Bahamas are unconstitutional. Violent crime is a continuing problem, although the country has not suffered the same crime levels as exist in much of the rest of the Caribbean. 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 are well-trained and 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. The United States 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.
Nongovernmental organizations have documented the occasional abuse of prisoners and arbitrary arrest. 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.
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.
The Bahamas is an accessible transit area for illegal aliens seeking entrance to the United States. No legislation regulates the processing of asylum seekers, whose influx has created social tension because of the strain on government services. The Bahamian government forcibly repatriates most asylum seekers, including Haitians and Cubans. No laws specifically address trafficking in persons, but there are also no reports of such activity.
The government remains strongly opposed to homosexuality. The Bahamian Plays and Films Control Board banned the gay-themed, American film Brokeback Mountain in 2006, prompting local gay rights groups to voice concerns about censorship and free speech violations.
Violence against women is widespread, and child abuse and neglect remain serious issues of concern. In October 2006, a man convicted of attempting to rape an elderly woman was sentenced to eight lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails, prompting condemnation from human rights groups. A high incidence of child labor also continues to be a concern, and children who work face a high risk of sexual exploitation.