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The Bahamas maintained its position as one of the best-governed countries in the Caribbean in 2008. The government of prime minister Hubert Ingraham of the Free National Movement party reacted to violent crime by vowing to reinstate the death penalty, but legal obstacles to the plan remained.
The Bahamas, a former British colony, became an independent state within the Commonwealth in 1973. Lynden Pindling served as the country’s first prime minister and head of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) for a quarter-century. After years of allegations of corruption and involvement by high officials in narcotics trafficking, Pindling and the PLP were defeated by the Free National Movement (FNM) party in 1992 elections. The FNM ruled the Bahamas for 10 years under Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, until the 2002 elections brought the PNP, led by Perry Christie, back to power. In May 2007, the FNM triumphed at the polls, winning 23 parliamentary seats to the PLP’s 18, thereby restoring Ingraham to the premiership and demoting Christie to leader of the opposition. Christie and Ingraham are close personal friends and business partners, which has left many Bahamians feeling that their country’s politics are dominated by an exclusive clique. The economic and political policies of the Bahamas have remained remarkably consistent under both prime ministers.
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. In 2008, the Ingraham government continued to struggle with the challenge of curbing narcotics trafficking and the violent crime associated with it. The Bahamas also suffers from a new trend of marijuana cultivation and trafficking by foreign nationals residing in the country, leading the United States to keep it on the list of major drug-producing or drug-transit countries.
The Bahamas is also a major transit point for migrants coming from elsewhere in the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Haiti, in the hope of reaching the United States. 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. In April 2008, 20 Haitian migrants drowned when their boat capsized in Bahamian waters, sparking deep concern about the large, unauthorized flow of people between the countries.
The Bahamas is an electoral democracy. The lower house of the bicameral Parliament, the 41-member House of Assembly, is directly elected for five-year terms. The 16 members of the upper house, the Senate, are appointed for five-year terms by the governor-general, who represents the British monarch as head of state. Nine of the senators are appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, four on the recommendation of the opposition leader, and three on the recommendation of the prime minister after consulting with the opposition leader. The head of the majority party or coalition in Parliament typically serves as prime minister.
Political parties can organize freely. The two leading parties are the FNM, headed by Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, who reshuffled his cabinet in July 2008, and the PLP, led by former prime minister Perry Christie.
The Bahamas was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2008 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. Full freedom of expression is potentially constrained by strict and antiquated libel laws dating to British legal codes, but in practice these laws are seldom invoked to abridge freedom of the press. Access to the internet is unrestricted.
The people’s rights to religious and academic freedom are respected.
The Bahamas upholds freedom of assembly. Constitutional guarantees of the right to form 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 government interference. Unions have the right to strike, and collective bargaining is prevalent. In 2008, there were continued reports of mistreatment of migrant workers in the construction and service sectors.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and a court of appeals, with the additional right of appeal under certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. Some progress has been reported in reducing both the duration 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. In 2008, however, a spate of homicides prompted one prominent opposition legislator to call for the resumption of executions by hanging, and the prime minister vowed to work toward removing legal obstacles to the death penalty. In December, the National Advisory Council on Crime presented 40 recommendations for fighting crime to the Minister of National Security, including a call for the use of the death penalty as a deterrent.
Nongovernmental organizations have documented the occasional abuse of prisoners and arbitrary arrest. Prison overcrowding remains a major problem. Juveniles are often housed with adults, increasing the risk of sexual abuse. The establishment of a “correctional training institute” in 2005was intended to improve segregation of violent and nonviolent offenders.
Discrimination against people 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 government is 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. However, the Bahamas spends more than US$1 million annually on antiretroviral drugs for HIV-infected patients. Gender equality remains an issue, and only 5 out of 41 members of parliament are women. Domestic violence remains a problem.