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 2009, Trinidad and Tobago enjoyed the international spotlight by hosting the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain. However, political and security difficulties continued to fester, including cases of political corruption and 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.
Former prime minister Basdeo 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.
Violent crime rates remained among the highest in the region, but dropped slightly to 509 homicides in 2009, down from a high of 550 the previous year. In addition, Amnesty International reported that police had killed more than 40 people in 2008, and singled out the country for condemnation of extra-judicial police killings. Most investigations of extrajudicial crimes go unpunished, with only 6 percent resulting in charges filed against the police since 1999.
In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago gained international attention by hosting the Fifth Summit of the Americas, a major quadrennial gathering of the 34 elected heads of government from the Western Hemisphere. While the government tried to frame the summit as a major diplomatic achievement, popular discontent with the costs of the event and the related disruptions for security purposes cut into Manning’s support.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Trinidad and Tobago is an electoral democracy. The November 2007 elections 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 16 senators on the advice of the prime minister, 6 on the advice of the opposition, 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, though the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians, while the UNC is affiliated with Indo-Trinidadians.
The country is believed to suffer from high levels of official corruption. Trinidad’s Integrity Commission, established under the 2000 Integrity in Public Life Act to uphold standards of transparency and accountability, 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.In 2009, the Integrity Commission endured a series of controversies as three of its five members resigned in rapid succession after their legal eligibility to serve in this capacity came under scrutiny. The UNC opposition attempted to use the scandal to force President George Richards from office, but the motion failed. Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 79 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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 2009, inaccurate news reports about endangered children prompted the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago to investigate implementing a new broadcast code to curb false reporting; legal groups have protested that such a move could lead to curbs on press freedom. 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 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 thousands of 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 address 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 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. In 2009, alleged police mistreatment of a Saudi diplomat drew protest from local Muslim leaders.
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 along strict ethnic lines.
Women participate in high-level politics, including 26 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives and 42 percent in the Senate. However, men still dominate most leadership positions, and salary gaps continue to favor men. Domestic violence remains a significant concern. While serious crimes such as murder and rape are reported, other instances of domestic abuse go unreported. In September 2009, the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women complained that the government was withholding a draft version of a new gender policy, a violation of the country’s Freedom of Information Act.