Freedom in the World
St. Lucians were stunned by a New Year's Eve, 2000, attack on worshippers gathering at a church service in which an Irish nun was killed. The outrage, in which men wielding torches and clubs stormed the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Castries as the faithful filled the aisles for Holy Communion, fuelled tensions between St. Lucia's mainly Christian population and members of the Rastafarian movement, to which the assailants reportedly belonged. Also in 2000, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and the ruling St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP) gave their approval for regulated casino gambling, brushing aside objections from religious groups and the United Workers Party (UWP) to seemingly focus even more of their energies on revitalizing the country’s tourism trade.
St. Lucia, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence in 1979. The British monarchy is represented by a governor-general. Under the 1979 constitution, a bicameral parliament consists of a 17-member house of assembly, elected for five years, and an 11-member senate. Six members of the upper body are appointed by the prime minister, three by the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and two by consultation with civic and religious organizations. The island is divided into eight regions, each with its own elected council and administrative services.
The UWP government was long headed by John Compton, whose decision to retire in March 1996 was apparently linked to a number of scandals that included an alleged affair with a teenager. He had also been accused of knowing about the misappropriation of United Nations funds. Soon after his retirement announcement, his deputy both as prime minister and party leader, 72-year-old George Mallet, announced his decision to retire, clearing the way for Compton’s handpicked successor, a former director-general of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Vaughan Lewis. Lewis had won Mallet’s vacated seat in the February 1996 by-elections. Now holding a seat, Lewis was qualified to assume the party leadership. In April, since his party won the most seats, he automatically became the prime minister.
In June 1996, upon the retirement of Governor-General Sir Stanislaus James, Mallet was sworn in as the country’s fourth governor-general over protests that the post be reserved for those outside the sphere of party politics.
Opposition leader Julian Hunte also stepped down after taking third place in the February 1996 by-elections. Anthony, a former education minister, replaced him as leader of the SLP. By the end of 1996 the SLP had merged with smaller opposition parties, and Anthony led the coalition to victory in the May 23, 1997, elections. In the biggest electoral landslide in the country’s history, the SLP, out of power since 1982, won 16 of 17 seats in parliament and unseated Prime Minister Lewis with a 26-year-old political newcomer.
In 1998, Compton, prime minister for 29 years and a member of parliament for 40 years, returned to lead the UWP. Unemployment, estimated at 20 percent, remains a potential source of instability. Upon taking office, Anthony began to address concerns of an electorate weary of economic distress and reports of official corruption. In 1999, his government faced a series of issues concerning the hotel and airline industries, both vital for the tourism industry. The decision in early 2000 on casino gambling paved the way for a 300-room Hyatt hotel, which is due to open in March 2001, to be the first to win a gambling license. Police said the two men held in the church attack claimed that they were Rastafarians sent by God to fight corruption in the Catholic Church; Rasta leaders however denounced the attack, saying it contravened their belief in peaceful coexistence.
Citizens are able to change their government through democratic elections. Constitutional guarantees regarding the right to organize political parties, labor unions, and civic groups are generally respected, as is the free exercise of religion.
The competition among political parties and allied civic organizations is heated, particularly during election campaigns when one side invariably accuses the other of occasional violence and harassment.
The judicial system is independent and includes a high court under the West Indies Supreme Court (based in St. Lucia), with ultimate appeal under certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. The constitution requires public trials before an independent and impartial court. Traditionally, citizens have enjoyed a high degree of personal security, although there are episodic reports of police misuse of force. In recent years, an escalating crime wave, much of it drug-related, violent clashes during banana farmers’ strikes, and increased violence in schools sparked concern among citizens. The island’s nineteenth-century prison, built to house a maximum of 101 inmates, in fact houses more than 350. In 2000 the government sought to finish construction of a new $17 million prison facility in the eastern part of the island.
The media carry a wide spectrum of views and are largely independent of the government. There are five privately owned newspapers, two privately held radio stations, and one partially government-funded radio station, as well as two privately owned television stations.
Civic groups are well organized and politically active, as are labor unions, which represent a majority of wage earners. Legislation passed in 1995 restricts the right to strike. The measure provides for a fine of about U.S.$2,000 or two years in prison for inciting any person to cease performing any lawful activity on his property or on the property of another person. The government said the measure was aimed at curtailing strikes in the banana industry, which employs more than 30 percent of the workforce. Nonetheless, in October 1996, a 14-day strike took place in which banana industry workers demanded a greater role in management decisions. The strike resulted in violence, and the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, seriously injuring several people.
Though there are no official barriers to the participation of women, they are underrepresented. A growing awareness of the seriousness of violence against women has led the government and advocacy groups to take steps to offer better protection for victims of domestic violence.