1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 4


International suspicions regarding the real purposes of dozens of low profile businesses established by Russian investors in the Caribbean have focused on offshore banks and trust and insurance companies in Antigua and Barbuda. Concerns that the enterprises may be laundering the proceeds from crime syndicates in the former Soviet Union have led the government of Prime Minister Lester Bird to begin to restrict the influx of Russian capital and monitor financial operations.

Antigua and Barbuda is a member of the British Commonwealth. The British monarchy is represented by a governor-general. The islands gained independence in 1981. Under the constitution, the political system is a parliamentary democracy, with a bicameral parliament consisting of an appointed senate and a 17-member House of Representatives elected for five years. In the House, there are 16 seats for Antigua and one for Barbuda. Eleven senators are appointed by the prime minister, four by the parliamentary opposition leader, one by the Barbuda Council, and one by the governor-general.

Antigua and Barbuda has been dominated by the Bird family and the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) for decades. Rule has been based more on power and the abuse of authority than on law. The constitution has been consistently disregarded.

In 1994 Vere Bird, the patriarch of the most prominent family, resigned as prime minister in favor of his son Lester. Prior to the 1994 elections, three opposition parties united to form the United Progressive Party (UPP). Labor activist Baldwin Spencer became UPP leader, and Tim Hector, editor of the outspoken weekly Outlet, became deputy leader. The UPP campaigned on a social democratic platform that emphasized rule of law and good governance. In the election, the ALP won 11 parliamentary seats, down from 15 in 1989. The UPP won five, up from one in 1989. The Barbuda People's Movement retained the Barbuda seat, thereby giving the opposition a total of six seats. Despite unfair campaign conditions, the UPP opted to accept the outcome because it believed that political momentum was now on its side.

After taking office as prime minister, Lester Bird promised cleaner, more efficient government, but his administration continued to be dogged by scandals and corruption. In 1997, a U.S. State Department report took aim at the "inadequate regulation and vetting" of the 57 banks that have opened on the islands in the last ten years. In 1998, Antigua and Barbuda's offshore industry was rocked by the disclosure of what the U.S. Customs Service called the biggest non-narcotics money laundering racket that it had ever uncovered.

The Bird government still clearly hopes to diversify the tourist-dependent economy through offshore banking. In December, it issued new legislation on international corporate structures. The new law includes oversight mechanisms, but does not mandate cooperation with foreign tax investigations.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Constitutionally, citizens are able to change their government by democratic means. Political parties, labor unions, and civic organizations are free to organize. The 1994 elections, however, were neither free nor fair. The balloting system did not guarantee a secret vote, the ruling party dominated the broadcast media and excluded the opposition, the voter registration system was deficient, and the voter registry was inflated by as much as 30 percent with names of people who had died or left the country.

The judiciary is nominally independent, but weak and subject to political manipulation by the ruling party. It has been nearly powerless to address corruption in the executive branch. Legislation allows for the issuance of Internet casino licenses that, like those of offshore banks, promise minimum regulation, maximum discretion, and no taxes. The police generally respect human rights, but basic police reporting statistics are confidential.

The ALP government and the Bird family control the country's television, cable, and radio outlets. During the 1994 elections, the opposition was allowed to purchase broadcast time only to announce its campaign events. The government barred the UPP from the broadcast media through a strict interpretation of the country's archaic electoral law, which prohibits broadcast of any item for the "purpose of promoting or procuring the election of any candidate or of any political party." Meanwhile, the ALP launched a concerted political campaign thinly disguised as news about the government.

The government, the ruling party, and the Bird family also control four newspapers, including Antigua Today, an expensively produced weekly established in 1993 as an election vehicle for Lester Bird. The opposition counts solely on Outlet, which the government attempts to thwart through intimidation and libel suits, and the Daily Observer, a small, but vocal publication.

Freedom of religion is respected. An industrial court mediates labor disputes, but public sector unions tend to be influenced by the ruling party. Demonstrators are occasionally subject to harassment by the police, who are politically linked to the ruling party.

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