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Trinidad and Tobago
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In 2008, Prime Minister Patrick Manning of the People’s National Movement saw his popularity falter as Trinidad and Tobago was affected by the falling price of its energy exports and a rise in violent crime.
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 term in office from 1991 to 1995. Disputed elections in 2001 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. In June 2005, the country’s Elections and Boundaries Commission approved the creation of 5 new electoral constituencies, for a total of 41. The change was designed to prevent a recurrence of the 2001 electoral tie.
Former prime minister Baseo 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 in the late 1990s. He retained the UNC chairmanship while appealing his conviction, which was overturned in April 2007. Nevertheless, 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. About half of the country’s one million registered voters cast their ballots, a lower turnout than in previous elections.
High levels of violent crime in 2007 and early 2008 prompted the opposition and the public to call for the government to declare a state of emergency in January 2008. Instead, Prime Minister Manning encouraged Parliament to focus on crime-reducing measures, which by year’s end produced police management and training reform, a special anti-crime unit, and a ramped-up effort to fight gang and drug-related crime.Trinidad and Tobago’s murder rate is among the highest in the region, with over 500 homicides reported in 2008. In May, Amnesty International criticized the country’s police force for civilian deaths that occurred during police shootouts, and aparliamentary report identified lack of discipline within the police force as a major problem.
Trinidad and Tobago is the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas to the United States and the world’s top exporter of methanol and ammonia, but its growth rate slipped in 2008 due to declining energy prices.
Trinidad and Tobago is an electoral democracy. The November 2007 elections, in which Manning was reelected president, were generally considered to be free and fair by observers. A Caribbean Community (CARICOM) electoral observation mission reported that voting was orderly and peaceful, which represented a marked reduction in tension compared to previous elections.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, but in practice, the dominance of the PNM and UNC has led to a two-party system. The parties are technically multiethnic, but in practice, the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians, while 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 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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 nation-wide strike, and his “Breaking Barriers” television show was pulled off the air; however, the charges were later dropped. In 2008, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago completed three rounds of consultations on a new broadcasting code for radio and television broadcasters which would seek to restrict the content and nature of programming.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.
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, 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.
The government has struggled in recent years to come to grips with the problem of violent crime. 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.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of the few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that is grappling with the problem of Islamic extremism. In 2007, a four-person terrorist plot to blow up a fuel line at JFK airport in New York involved a Trinidadian suspect, but no formal links were found to Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a small radical Muslim group that had staged a coup attempt in Port-of-Spain in 1991, causing 23 deaths.
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.
Gender discrimination is forbidden under the constitution, and women participate in high-level politics, including about one-sixth of the seats in the House of Representatives and one-fifth of the Senate’s seats. Women are present in the public and private sectors, but men still dominate most leadership positions, and salary gaps continue to favor men. Domestic violence concerns remain quite significant. While serious crimes such as murder and rape are reported, other instances of abuse go unreported. In 2008, the head of the Family Planning Association, a local NGO, highlighted concerns about the high incidence of sexual abuse committed against children.