Freedom in the World 2003 - Trinidad and Tobago

Polity: Parliamentary democracy
Population: 1,300,000
GNI/Capita: $8,964
Life Expectancy: 71
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (29.4 percent), Hindu (23.8 percent), Anglican (10.9 percent), Muslim (5.8 percent), other
Ethnic Groups: Black (40 percent), East Indian (40 percent), mixed (18 percent), other (2 percent)
Capital: Port-of-Spain

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Partly Free


Following street demonstrations, a legal challenge, and a stalemate in the evenly divided legislature, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, of the People's National Movement (PNM), called for elections in October. The polling was generally peaceful and saw the participation of 6 parties representing more than 100 candidates contesting the 36 open seats. The PNM won 20 seats, while the United National Congress (UNC) had a heavy showing, reinforcing the domination of these 2 parties. Manning was sworn in for the third time since 1991, as the seventh prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago. His cabinet showed few changes and included his wife, Hazel, who again serves as minister of education; nepotism does not seem to be an issue for the electorate. In previous elections there were concerns over the impartiality of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, but no major improprieties surfaced during the recent polls. In October the Inter-American Convention against Terrorism was signed.

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 the 36-member House of Representatives elected for 5 years and the 31-member Senate, with 25 senators appointed by the prime minister and 6 by the opposition.

In July 1991, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, a small radical Muslim group, staged a coup attempt in Port-of-Spain. The prime minister and eight cabinet members were held hostage for four days, and 23 people died in bombings at the police headquarters, the state television station, and the parliamentary building. Efforts to heal the wounds of the coup continue to characterize Trinidadian politics. Tensions persist between the black and East Indian communities, each roughly 40 percent of the population, as the latter edged towards numerical, and thus political, advantage. The most recent elections are emblematic of the racial tensions that continue to dominate electoral contests.

In July 2001, Prime Minister Baseo Panday of the UNC lashed out at a Transparency International report that rated Trinidad, for the first time, as a country with high levels of official corruption. The group put Trinidad 31st out of 91 countries in its Corruption Perception index, with a rating of 5.3 out of 10. Panday, who was engaged in a long-running feud with prominent members of the local press, denied that there was corruption in his administration and claimed that Transparency International was repeating "rumors and propaganda that are being spread about my country."

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can change their government democratically. The judiciary branch is independent, although 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. Prisons are grossly overcrowded; however, the government does permit visits to them by human rights monitors, who in general operate freely.

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 2000, the country withdrew entirely from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There are more than 100 prisoners on death row.

Street crime is on the rise, with the consumption and trafficking of illegal drugs considered to be largely responsible for the increase in violent crime. The increasing frequency with which illicit drugs are used on the islands has been accompanied by significant growth of the drug trade. Drug corruption extends to the business community, and a significant amount of money is believed to be laundered through front companies. Recently, legislation was approved that 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 – often drug-related – is endemic, and law enforcement inefficiency results in the dismissal of some criminal cases. In December 2000, Prime Minister Baseo Panday admitted that, despite governmental efforts to finance reforms, something was "fundamentally wrong" with the police force. 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 hotline.

Press outlets are privately owned and vigorous, and thus offer pluralistic views; the broadcast media are both private and public. Prime Minister Panday refused 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." 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 2000, a high-court judge ordered Panday to pay newspaper publisher Ken Gordon, an Afro-Trinidadian, $120,000 for defamation, after Panday had called him a "pseudo-racist." There is free access to the Internet. Academic freedom is generally honored.

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 defendant the court said had suffered from battered-wife syndrome. Freedom of association and assembly is respected. Labor unions are well organized, powerful, and politically active, although union membership has declined. Strikes are legal and occur frequently.

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