Freedom in the World
St. Vincent and Grenadines
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In 2008, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of the Unity Labour Party deepened his country’s international relationships and struggled to address pressing economic challenges. The opposition New Democratic Party engaged in spirited disputes over taxes, foreign policy, and the prime minister’s integrity.
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.
In December 2005, Gonsalves led the ULP to reelection, again taking 12 of the 15 contested seats, while the opposition NDP won the remaining 3. 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 onetime 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.
In 2008, Gonsalves was charged with sexual assaults on two women, but both cases were subsequently dropped. Opposition legislators boycotted a parliamentary session over the issue, but Gonsalves threatened to declare the seats vacant and open them for elections.In January, and several times throughout 2008, strikes by the teachers’ union challenged the prime minister’s reluctance to raise salaries to no avail; threats to the union leader’s life were confirmed in June.
On the economic front, Gonsalves proposed a reduction of subsidies on petroleum, while opposition leaders called for the removal of the value-added tax in the face of rising food and oil prices. Also during the year, the Gonsalves government accepted development assistance from Cuba, Venezuela, and Taiwan.In August, Gonsalves established diplomatic relations with Iran and agreed to receive aid for airport construction, although opposition leaders expressed concern over the new relationship.
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. 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.
In recent years, there have been allegations of drug-related corruption within the government and the police force and of money laundering through Saint Vincent banks. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was ranked 28 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it one of the best performers in the region.
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 main news 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 respected in practice, and academic freedom is generally honored. 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 members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.
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 2008, there were 26 murders in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, down from 36 in 2007.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.
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. Homosexuality remains a criminal offense.