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)
In November 2007, Prime Minister Patrick Manning of the People’s National Movement party won a second term in office amid an economic boom generated by the country’s natural gas industry. The United National Congress remained the principal opposition party, and the upstart Congress of the People party failed to win a single seat in Parliament.
Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Britain in 1962 and became a republic in 1976.
Prime Minister Patrick Manning of the People’s National Movement (PNM) returned to the premiership in December 2001 after a previous stint in office from 1991 to 1995. The disputed 2001 elections had resulted in an evenly divided lower house, and Manning sought to break the deadlock by calling fresh elections in October 2002. The PNM won 20 of the chamber’s 36 seats, but the opposition United National Congress (UNC) also had a strong showing, reinforcing the dominance of the two parties. The UNC became increasingly confrontational in 2003, forcing the government to compromise when legislation required a two-thirds majority. Basdeo Panday, the UNC prime minister from 1995 to 2001, refused to step down as party leader despite having promised to do so when he turned 70 in May 2003. In June 2005, the country’s Elections and Boundaries Commission approved of the creation of five new electoral constituencies, for a total of 41. The change was designed to prevent a recurrence of the 2001 electoral tie.
Panday was sentenced to two years of hard labor in April 2006 for having failed to declare London bank accounts that he held while serving as prime minister. He retained the UNC chairmanship while appealing his conviction, which was overturned in April 2007. However, the UNC was embroiled in infighting, and several high-level defections fueled speculation that a three-party system could emerge. In September 2006, former UNC leader Winston Dookeran created a new party, Congress of the People.
Manning handily won another term in office in the November 2007 elections, with the PNM capturing 26 of the 41 seats in the lower house. The UNC won the remaining 15, leaving Congress of the People shut out of Parliament. Even Dookeran lost his seat to a UNC opponent. About half of the country’s one million registered voters cast their ballots, a lower turnout than in previous elections. A 27-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) electoral observation mission reported that the elections were free and fair and that voting was orderly and peaceful, which represented a marked reduction in tension compared to previous elections.
Trinidad and Tobago is currently 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, Trinidad enjoyed a growth rate in excess of 8 percent in 2007. However, violent crime remained a serious concern; there were 395 murders in 2007, up from 368 in 2006, giving the country one of the highest murder rates in the region.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of the few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that must grapple with the problem of domestic Islamic extremism. Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a small radical Muslim group, staged a coup attempt in 1991, killing 23 people in a series of bombings and holding the prime minister and eight cabinet members hostage before eventually surrendering to the authorities. In August 2003, Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder but was then 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 subsequently released, and it remained unclear whether the bombers were engaged in criminal mischief or pursuing a broader political agenda. In 2007, an alleged four-person terrorist plot to blow up a fuel line at a New York City airport included a Trinidadian suspect. The four had reportedly attempted, without success, to enlist Jamaat al-Muslimeen’s support for their efforts.
Trinidad and Tobago is an electoral democracy. The president is elected to a five-year term by a majority of the combined houses of Parliament, though executive authority rests with the prime minister. Parliament consists of the 41-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, though the dominance of the PNM and UNC has led to a two-party system. The parties are technically multiethnic, but the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians and the UNC is affiliated with Indo-Trinidadians.
Trinidad and Tobago is believed to suffer from high levels of official corruption. 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. Former prime minister Basdeo Panday of the UNC 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, but the conviction was overturned in 2007. Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 79 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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. In 2007, noted Islamic broadcaster Inshan Ishmael was arrested under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Act for promoting a nationwide strike, and his Breaking Barriers television show was pulled off the air. However, the charges were later dropped. 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.
Freedoms of association and assembly are 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, but it is 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.
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 alternates between the two dominant parties, which have loose ethnic affiliations but are not strictly defined by ethnicity.
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. Women are present in the public and private sectors, but men still dominate most leadership positions, and salary gaps continue to favor men.