Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2
Trinidad and Tobago's political rights rating changed from 1 to 2 due to the tone of the 2000 national campaign and credible, though still unproven, complaints of some electoral manipulation.
Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's pro-business United National Congress (UNC) government swept to a bitterly fought and narrow victory in national elections held December 10, 2000, after a campaign marred by opposition claims of electoral corruption and worries about an upsurge of violent crime. During his first five-year term, the British-trained Panday, a lawyer and former trade unionist, presided over an economy that has become the powerhouse among the smaller nations of the Caribbean basin. However, his bid for reelection was clouded by worries about increasing drug crime and the country's growing reputation as a way station for Colombian cartels shipping cocaine northward to the United States. The hard-fought contest boosted electoral participation by 13 percent – 76 percent of the nation's 947,447 eligible voters cast ballots – with a large number of young people turning out to vote. The intractable ethnic divide between the islands' East Indian and African communities also helped to keep the vote close. In the aftermath of the contest, the Trinidad Express editorialized that the election "certainly set some kind of record for just how tasteless and inconsiderate election campaigns can be."
Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence in 1962. The 1976 constitution established the two-island nation as a republic with a president, elected by a majority of both houses of parliament, replacing the former governor-general. Executive authority remains vested in the prime minister. The bicameral parliament consists of a 36-member house of representatives elected for five years and a 31-member senate, with 25 senators appointed by the prime minister and 6 by the opposition.
In the 1986 elections the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a coalition that bridges traditional political differences between black and East Indian communities, led by A. N. R. Robinson, soundly defeated the black-based People's National Movement (PNM), which had ruled for 30 years. The coalition unraveled when Basdeo Panday, the country's most prominent East Indian politician, was expelled; he then formed the East Indian-based UNC.
In July 1991 a radical black Muslim group briefly seized parliament. Tensions increased between black and East Indian communities, each roughly 40 percent of the population, as the latter edged towards numeric, and thus political, advantage. In December 1991 Patrick Manning led the PNM to victory by taking 21 of 36 parliamentary seats. Manning's government deregulated the economy and floated the currency, but the social costs of these economic reforms caused the PNM's popularity to decline. Manning called snap elections for November 6, 1995.
The election campaign focused on unemployment and the effects of the structural adjustment program. Voting ran largely along ethnic lines, with East Indians voting overwhelmingly for the UNC and blacks for the PNM. Each party won 17 seats on Trinidad. The NAR retained its two seats on Tobago. The NAR entered into a coalition with the UNC in exchange for a ministerial position for former Prime Minister Robinson and a promise of greater autonomy for Tobago. UNC leader Panday became Trinidad's first prime minister of East Indian descent.
In March 1996 Robinson was elected president. A series of incidents with Venezuela involving maritime rights – revolving around oil exploration and fishing rights, and Venezuelan drug interdiction efforts – dominated the news. Internal divisions within the NAR, resulting from the strain of being the minority member of a governing coalition, threatened to cause the coalition to disappear. More recently, unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in a decade and a half.
In 1997 there were growing accusations about sweetheart contracts and patronage jobs, and Panday responded by assailing the "lies, half truths and innuendoes" of the opposition press. In 1998, Panday continued his campaign, as his government chose not to renew the work permit of Barbadian newsman Julian Rogers, in apparent reprisal for his having broadcast telephone calls from government critics. In April 1999, Information Minister Rupert Griffith reminded the media of the government's power to grant and revoke broadcast licenses and warned that local media operations were being examined "under a microscope."
In 1999, the Panday government brushed aside criticism from international human rights groups and allowed 10 of the more than 100 prisoners on death row to be hanged, in part out of concern over the islands' growing drug trade. The local appeal of the move was underscored when the government used the day that the first three men were executed to announce the holding of local elections the following month. Despite the move, the PNM, led by former Prime Minister Manning, made strong gains in the July 12 vote, in a contest marked by appeals along racial lines. On New Year's Eve, 1999, the chairman of a regional development corporation who criticized corruption in the government's unemployment program, was murdered after complaining to Panday that his local government minister had made threats against him.
In the December 2000 elections, Panday's UNC won 19 parliamentary seats to the PNM's 16, with the NAR winning 1 of the 2 on the island of Tobago. In the aftermath of his party's defeat, Manning said he was considering charges against two victorious UNC candidates who, he said, filed false nominating petitions as a result of holding dual citizenship. The PNM also claimed that the UNC had tried to pad voter rolls in highly competitive districts. Panday's swearing-in ceremony was delayed by nine days due to recounts in several constituencies and the threat of legal action by the PNM. On December 31, 2000, President Arthur Robinson refused to swear in six nominees to Panday's cabinet who had been defeated in the election, saying such appointments "undermine democracy."
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can change their government democratically. Despite preelection complaints about ruling-party padding of the voter rolls, and PNM charges that the UNC offered its members financial inducements to defect, a Commonwealth observer group has given the election high marks in a preliminary report.
The judiciary is independent, although subject to some political pressure, and the Privy Council in London serves as the recourse of ultimate appeal. 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. Prisons are grossly overcrowded; the government does permit visits to them by human rights monitors, who in general operate freely. There are more than 100 prisoners on death row.
In May 1999, the government withdrew as a state party from the American Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits countries from extending the death penalty beyond those crimes for which it was in effect at the time the treaty was ratified. In June three men, including the reputed drug lord Dole Chadee, were hanged for their role in the 1994 murder of a couple and their two children – the first executions in five years – and their executions were followed by seven within a month. In June 2000, the country withdrew entirely from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amnesty International, which has been at odds with the Panday government over the death penalty, charged that "as a consequence ... international human rights experts will no longer be able to examine the claims of those aggrieved citizens who may have suffered violations of their most fundamental rights."
As the country is an important transshipment point for cocaine, an estimated 80 percent of all crimes are believed to involve narcotics. High levels of drug-related violence and common crime continue to undermine the protection of civil liberties. There have been more than two dozen drug-related killings in recent years, including the still unsolved murder of former Attorney General Selwyn Richardson. Successive governments have also failed to enforce certain criminal laws. Corruption in the police force – often drug-related – is endemic, and law enforcement inefficiency results in the dismissal of some criminal cases. In December 2000, Panday admitted that despite government efforts to finance reforms, something was "fundamentally wrong" with the police force.
The Panday government has won some points for its antidrug efforts and has been a principal proponent of a regional witness-protection program. It has also signed several antinarcotics accords with the United States.
The press is privately owned and vigorous and offers pluralistic views; however, in May 1997, the government floated a restrictive journalistic code of conduct that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago said led to instances in which reporters and other press workers were physically attacked. In 1998, Panday's refusal to allow the renewal of the work permit of a respected Barbadian broadcaster became a regional cause célèbre. He also reiterated his refusal to sign the Inter-American Press Association's Chapultepec Declaration on press freedom until it addressed instances of media dissemination of "lies, half-truths and innuendoes." The broadcast media are both private and public. Freedom of association and assembly is respected. In 2000, a high court judge ordered Panday to pay newspaper publisher Ken Gordon, an Afro-Trinidadian, $120,000 for defamation, after calling him a "pseudo-racist."
Domestic violence and other violence against women is extensive and remains a low priority for police and prosecutors. However, in a 1999 landmark ruling, the court of appeals overturned a death sentence and reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter in the case of a woman the court said suffered from battered-wife syndrome. Persons infected with HIV/AIDS are the focus of community ostracism and government neglect.
Labor unions are well organized, powerful, and politically active, although union membership has declined. Strikes are legal and occur frequently.
Disclaimer: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved
This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.