Freedom in the World
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St. Vincent and Grenadines
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In 2007, politics in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines became increasingly contentious as Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of the Unity Labour Party and the opposition New Democratic Party sparred over issues including new taxes, regional integration, and foreign policy.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines achieved independence from Britain in 1979, with jurisdiction over the northern Grenadine islets of Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, Prune Island, Petit Saint Vincent, and Union Island.
In the 2001 elections, the social-democratic Unity Labour Party (ULP) captured 12 of the 15 contested legislative seats, and Ralph Gonsalves became prime minister. The incumbent, conservative New Democratic Party (NDP) was reduced to three seats. International observers monitored the elections, which had been preceded by large antigovernment protests and the first serious political unrest in the country’s history. Prime Minister Gonsalves led a successful initiative that year to save the financially ailing Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) by shifting some of its administrative requirements to the member states.
In 2003, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force removed Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from its list of jurisdictions deemed “noncooperative” in the fight against money laundering. The move was regarded as a major victory for Gonsalves’s government. In the same month, the U.S. Coast Guard detained eight ships when it discovered that several officers had licenses that were improperly issued by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In June 2005, Barbados prime minister Owen Arthur charged that authorities in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were not doing enough to stop the flow of illegal drugs or stifle international criminal networks operating out of Saint Vincent.
In December 2005, Gonsalves led the ULP to reelection, again taking 12 of the 15 contested seats, while the opposition NDP won the remaining three. The NDP later vowed to take legal action over alleged electoral irregularities, but the party’s effort stalled after the Organization of American States gave the elections its stamp of approval.
Gonsalves, a one-time radical opposition figure, generated controversy in 2007 by pursuing closer relations with Venezuela and Cuba. The political opposition called for his resignation, but most citizens approved of his strategy of seeking energy and medical assistance from the two countries. His plan to introduce a value-added tax also sparked heated political debate.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for the election of 15 representatives to the unicameral House of Assembly to serve five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in the House. Six senators are appointed to the chamber—four chosen by the government and two by the opposition. A governor-general represents the British monarch as head of state. The December 2005 elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The two main political parties are the ruling, left-leaning ULP and the conservative NDP.
There have been allegations of drug-related corruption within the government and the police force and of money laundering through Saint Vincent banks. In 1995, the U.S. government alleged that Saint Vincent was becoming a drug-trafficking center and that high-level government officials were involved in narcotics-related corruption. Since then, the country has taken steps to cooperate with U.S. counternarcotics efforts and signed an extradition treaty with the United States in 1996. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was ranked 30 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, which placed it for the first time in the top five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The press is independent, with two privately owned, independent weeklies and several smaller, partisan papers. Some journalists allege that government advertising is used as a political tool. The only television station is privately owned and free from government interference. Satellite dishes and cable television are available to those who can afford them. The radio station is government owned, and call-in programs are prohibited. Equal access to radio is mandated during electoral campaigns, but the ruling party takes advantage of state control over programming. Internet access is not restricted.
Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and reflected in practice, and academic freedom is generally honored. In September 2005, universal secondary education was introduced. Access to higher education is limited but improving as the University of the West Indies initiates degree programs with community colleges in Saint Vincent and other OECS members.
There is constitutional protection for freedom of assembly and association. Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations are free from government interference. Labor unions are active and permitted to strike.
The judicial system is independent. The highest court is the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (based in Saint Lucia), which includes a court of appeals and a high court. Litigants have a right of ultimate appeal, under certain circumstances, to the Caribbean Court of Justice. The independent Saint Vincent Human Rights Association has criticized long judicial delays and a large backlog of cases caused by personnel shortages in the local judiciary. It has also charged that the executive branch at times exerts inordinate influence over the courts.
Murder convictions carry a mandatory death sentence. In 2006, rising crime and violence remained an important public concern following several high-profile murders, including the killing in early March of the prime minister’s press secretary, Glen Jackson. In May 2006, the ruling ULP sought to make it more difficult for foreigners to achieve citizenship, citing crime concerns. Prison conditions have improved but remain poor—a prison in Kingstown was renovated to accommodate 150 inmates, but holds over 350—and inmates have alleged mistreatment. In 2007, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves reaffirmed his support for the death penalty.
Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is a major problem. The Domestic Violence Summary Proceedings Act, which provides for protective orders, offers some tools that benefit victims. The punishment for rape is generally 10 years in prison, while those convicted of sexual assaults against minors receive 20 years. In June 2006, four men were accused of raping two teenagers from Florida and beating their mother, sparking public outrage against the perpetrators. In 2007, both Gonsalves and the NDP declared strong opposition to decriminalizing homosexuality.