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 political rights rating improved from 3 to 2 due to the loosening of former prime minister Panday’s grip on the UNC opposition party as several dissidents split off to form their own party.
As the economy of Trinidad and Tobago benefited from an ongoing oil and gas boom in 2006, the government of Prime Minister Patrick Manning began to make headway in the struggle against dramatic increases in violent crime. Opportunities for new leadership in the opposition United National Congress (UNC) party emerged after the party’s leader, former prime minister Basdeo Panday, was sentenced to two years’ hard labor on corruption-related charges. The Congress of the People party emerged under the leadership of former-UNC leader Winston Dookeran, and will likely be a viable third party in the upcoming elections in January 2008.
Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Britain in 1962 and became a republic in 1976. 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 parliament building. The militants eventually surrendered to the authorities.
After disputed elections in December 2001, former prime minister Patrick Manning returned to the premiership. A nine-month deadlock ensued in the evenly divided lower house of Parliament, leading to street demonstrations and a legal challenge. Manning eventually called for new legislative elections in October 2002. The polling was generally peaceful, and more than 100 candidates from six parties contested the lower house’s 36 seats. Manning’s People’s National Movement (PNM) won 20 seats, while the United National Congress (UNC) also had a strong showing, reinforcing the dominance of the two parties. Manning was sworn in as prime minister for the third time since 1991. In previous elections, there were concerns over the impartiality of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), but no major improprieties surfaced during the latest national or local polls. However, the UNC opposed plans to redraw electoral districts, arguing that the changes were partisan and favored the PNM. In June 2005, the EBC approved of the creation of five new electoral constituencies in Trinidad, now totaling forty-one, designed to prevent an electoral tie as happened in 2001.
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 local 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 April 2006, Panday was sentenced to two years of hard labor for having failed to declare London bank accounts that he had held while serving as prime minister in the late 1990s. He retained his UNC chairmanship while appealing the sentence. However, the UNC was embroiled in infighting, and several high-level defections fueled speculation that Trinidad’s politics could split into a three-party system. In September 2006, former UNC leader Winston Dookeran created the Congress of the People, calling for national unity.
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 in the case deadlocked, and he was released pending retrial, but police detained him and several followers once again after four bombs injured nine people in October 2005. They were later released, and it remained unclear whether the bombers were engaged in criminal mischief or pursuing a broader political agenda.
Crime, including kidnapping, robbery and homicide, was a critical problem throughout 2006, but the levels of violence improved slightly over the previous year. There were 369 homicides in 2006, down from the 386 homicides in 2005, the highest number in the country’s history. The police response was also criticized. In April 2006, Amnesty International reported that at least 35 people had been killed by the police between 2003 and 2005. In October 2006 Panday called on business leaders to create a $3.5 million fund aimed at forming an anticrime vigilante squad, but few were willing to back the proposal.
Currently Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing an economic boom driven by its natural gas industry. The country has become the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas to the United States and the world’s top exporter of methanol and ammonia. On the back of high energy prices, in the past two years the country has enjoyed growth rates in excess of 12 percent. Further, Trinidad and Tobago is attracting new foreign investment and increased tourism while maintaining relatively low inflation and low unemployment. Wages in the non-skilled sectors continue to rise, further elevating the Caribbean’s highest living standard. Moreover, Trinidad’s booming energy sector allowed it to remain unencumbered by oil-related agreements with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that were being signed by many other Caribbean countries.
Trinidad and Tobago is an electoral democracy. The 1976 constitution established the two-island nation as a republic, with a president replacing the British monarch, who had been represented by a governor-general, as head of state. The president is elected to a five-year term by a majority of the combined houses of Parliament. Executive authority remains vested in the prime minister. Parliament consists of the 36-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and the 31-member Senate, also serving for five years. The president appoints 6 senators on the advice of the opposition, 16 on the advice of the prime minister, and 9 at his own discretion.
Political parties are free to organize, but in practice, the dominance of the PNM and UNC has led to a two-party system. The parties are technically multi-ethnic but in practice the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians whereas the UNC is affiliated with Indo-Trinidadians.
In July 2001, then prime minister 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 perceived 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 was sentenced in April 2006 to two years in prison for failing to declare overseas bank accounts. Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 79 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is legally guaranteed by the constitution. Press outlets are privately owned and vigorous in their pluralistic views. There are four daily newspapers and several weeklies, as well as both private and public broadcast media outlets. Panday in 1998 refused to sign the Inter American Press Association’s Declaration of Chapultepec on press freedom until it addressed the media’s dissemination of “lies, half-truths and innuendoes.” However, on September 12, 2002, Prime Minister Manning signed the declaration. As a result, under Prime Minister Manning, the government has not interfered with freedom of speech and the press. The press has become incrementally more professional in recent years. Access to the internet is not restricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, and the government honors this provision. Foreign missionaries are free to operate, but the government allows only 35 representatives of each denomination. Academic freedom is generally observed.
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 in recent years. Strikes are legal and occur frequently.
The judicial branch is independent, though 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. The government permits human rights monitors to visit prisons, which are severely overcrowded.
Street crime remains a serious problem, and many Trinidadians of East Indian descent, who are disproportionately targets of abduction, blame the increase in violence and kidnapping on government corruption and police collusion. Drug-related 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.
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 telephone hotline.
The population is multiethnic, consisting of Afro-Trinidadians, Indo-Trinidadians, and those of mixed race. The Indo-Trinidadian community continues to edge toward 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. Parties have loose ethnic affiliations, but are not strictly defined by ethnicity.
Trinidad’s booming economy has opened up new employment opportunities and led to an expansion of related businesses. According to the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index, Trinidad and Tobago fell one ranking to 67 th in the year 2006.
Domestic-violence concerns remain quite significant. 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 2007, women held one-sixth of the seats in the House of Representatives, one-fifth of the Senate’s seats and 10 cabinet-level positions in Prime Minster Manning’s government. Women are present in the public and private sectors, but men still dominate most leadership positions, and salary gaps continue to favor men.