Freedom in the World 2010 - Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Capital: Kingstown
Population: 110,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free


In November, the ruling Unity Labour Party and Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves suffered a major blow when a national referendum on constitutional reform was soundly defeated, ending a hotly disputed debate that had dominated the political scene in 2009.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines achieved independence from Britain in 1979, with jurisdiction over the northern Grenadine islets of Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, Prune Island, Petit Saint Vincent, and Union Island.

In the 2001 elections, the social-democratic Unity Labour Party (ULP) captured 12 of the 15 contested legislative seats, and Ralph Gonsalves became prime minister. The incumbent, conservative New Democratic Party (NDP) was reduced to three seats. International observers monitored the elections, which had been preceded by large antigovernment protests and the first serious political unrest in the country's history.

In December 2005, Gonsalves led the ULP to reelection, again taking 12 of the 15 contested seats, while the opposition NDP won the remaining 3. The NDP later vowed to take legal action over alleged electoral irregularities, but the party's effort stalled after the Organization of American States gave the elections its stamp of approval

Gonsalves was charged with sexual assaults on two women in 2008, though both cases were subsequently dropped. Opposition legislators boycotted a parliamentary session over the issue, but Gonsalves threatened to declare the seats vacant and open them for elections.

In 2009, the politics of St. Vincent and the Grenadines became increasingly polarized over a November referendum to replace the country's 1979 constitution with one produced by a government-appointed Constitution Review Commission. Following six years of deliberations, the proposed constitution featured several important changes, such as opening national elections to members of the clergy and dual citizens and the inclusion of strong provisions against forced labor. It also ruled that marriage could only exist between a biological man and a biological woman. The opposition strongly opposed the new constitution for falling short of fully reforming the government, and former prime minister James Mitchell said the document should be burned.

On November 25, the constitutional reform failed to pass a national referendum, receiving support from only 43 percent of voters with 56 percent opposed. The apparent unpopularity of the constitutional reform, which would have required approval from a two-thirds majority of voters, places the ruling ULP in an awkward position with one year of the prime minister's term remaining.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is an electoral democracy. The December 2005 legislative elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The constitution provides for the election of 15 representatives to the unicameral House of Assembly to serve five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party. Six senators are appointed to the chamber – four chosen by the government and two by the opposition. A governor-general represents the British monarch as head of state.

The two main political parties are the ruling, left-leaning ULP and the conservative NDP.

In recent years, there have been allegations of drug-related corruption within the government and the police force and of money laundering through Saint Vincent banks. Nevertheless, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was ranked 31 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it one of the best performers in the region.

The press is independent, with two privately owned, independent weeklies and several smaller, partisan papers. Some journalists allege that government advertising is used as a political tool. The only television station is privately owned and free from government interference. Satellite dishes and cable television are available to those who can afford them. The main news radio station is government owned, and call-in programs are prohibited. Equal access to radio is mandated during electoral campaigns, but the ruling party takes advantage of state control over programming. Internet access is not restricted.

Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and respected in practice, and academic freedom is generally honored. Access to higher education is limited but improving as the University of the West Indies initiates degree programs with community colleges in Saint Vincent and other members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

There are constitutional protections for freedoms of assembly and association. Nongovernmental organizations are free from government interference. Labor unions are active and permitted to strike. In 2009, unions represented a reported 16 percent of the workforce.

The judicial system is independent. The highest court is the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (based in Saint Lucia), which includes a court of appeals and a high court. Litigants have a right of ultimate appeal, under certain circumstances, to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice. The independent Saint Vincent Human Rights Association has criticized long judicial delays and a large backlog of cases caused by personnel shortages in the local judiciary. It has also charged that the executive branch at times exerts inordinate influence over the courts.

Although the country remains one of the safest in the Caribbean, violent crime does occasionally occur. Prison conditions have improved but remain poor. The Belle Isle Correctional Facility opened in October 2009, easing the pressure on other long-overcrowded facilities. Murder convictions carry a mandatory death sentence, and while three people remain on death row, the last execution took place in 1995.

Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is a major problem. The Domestic Violence Summary Proceedings Act, which provides for protective orders, offers some tools that benefit victims. Homosexuality remains a criminal offense.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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