Freedom in the World 2021 - Trinidad and Tobago

/ 100
Political Rights 33 / 40
Civil Liberties 49 / 60
82 / 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a parliamentary democracy with vibrant media and civil society sectors. However, organized crime contributes to high levels of violence, and corruption among public officials remains a challenge. Other security concerns center on local adherents of Islamist militant groups. Discrimination against LGBT+ people and violence against women persist, and human trafficking is a significant concern.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Prime Minister Keith Rowley won the August general elections with 49 percent of the vote, taking 22 seats. The opposition United National Congress (UNC) earned 47 percent of the vote and 19 seats. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no monitoring missions were able to observe the polls. Six constituencies were subject to recounts, causing final results to be delayed by a week.
  • In a July press conference, the Minister of National Security claimed that “illegal immigrants” and “boat people”—derogatory terms referring to Venezuelan refugees—presented a potential health risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government targeted asylum seekers with heavier enforcement and created a hotline for residents to report them to report them. Government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 7,132 people tested positive for the virus, and 126 people died by year’s end.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The president, the largely ceremonial head of state, is elected to a five-year term by a majority in the combined houses of Parliament. Paula-Mae Weekes, an independent former judge, was elected unopposed in January 2018 and took office that March.

The prime minister, who serves as head of government and is typically the leader of the majority party in Parliament, is appointed by the president. Keith Rowley became prime minister in 2015, after that year’s parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for his party, the center-right People’s National Movement (PNM). Rowley retained his position after the PNM won the general elections in 2020.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Parliament consists of the directly elected, 41-member House of Representatives and the 31-member Senate, with members of both houses serving five-year terms. Of the 31 senators, 16 are appointed on the advice of the prime minister, 6 are appointed on the advice of the opposition leader, and 9 are appointed at the president’s discretion based on merit.

In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the incumbent PNM won 49 percent of the vote, securing 22 seats. The opposition United National Congress (UNC) took 47 percent of the vote and 19 seats. COVID-19 restrictions prevented observers from monitoring the election. Six constituencies were subject to recounts, causing final results to be delayed by a week.

The semiautonomous island of Tobago has its own House of Assembly, with 12 members elected directly, 3 appointed on the advice of the chief secretary (the island’s head of government), and 1 appointed on the advice of the minority leader. The PNM won 10 of the 12 elected seats and the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), a local pro-independence party, won the remainder in the most recent 2017 election.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

Electoral laws are largely fair. The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) organizes elections and is generally trusted by the public to fulfill its mandate impartially. The EBC recounted the votes in six constituencies after the 2020 election, which were accepted by all parties.

There was no evidence that electoral reforms suggested by 2015 observer missions had been implemented prior to the 2020 elections.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

Several political parties operate in Trinidad and Tobago. While the PNM dominated the political landscape in the decades following independence, it has weakened in recent years; the national political arena is now largely divided between the PNM and the UNC. Various factors, including the country’s first-past-the-post voting system, have made it difficult for less established parties to gain seats in Parliament.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Rival parties consistently transfer power peacefully, with multiple changes in government through elections since the 1980s.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 3 / 4

People’s political choices are generally free from external pressure. However, observers have raised concerns about lack of transparency in campaign financing, which may enable improper influence and disadvantage opposition parties.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

All ethnic groups enjoy full political rights, and political parties are technically multiethnic, though the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians and the UNC is affiliated with Indo-Trinidadians.

Women’s political participation has increased somewhat in recent years, though they remain generally underrepresented. The speaker of the House of Representatives and 10 out of 41 members of the House are women. In 2018, Paula-Mae Weekes became the first woman to be elected president. Discrimination against LGBT+ people is widespread, affecting their ability to fully engage in political and electoral processes.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

The country’s freely elected executive and legislative officeholders generally determine and implement government policies without undue interference.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Corruption remains a pervasive problem, especially within the police force and among high-ranking government officials and immigration officers. Several pieces of anticorruption legislation exist but are poorly enforced.

In May 2019, former attorney general Anand Ramlogan and former senator Gerald Ramdeen, both of the UNC, were arrested on suspicion of money laundering; Ramlogan was accused of routing kickbacks and legal fees to outside lawyers during his tenure, while Ramdeen was accused of receiving some of the funds. The case against Ramlogan and Ramdeen, who resigned from the Senate in May, was pending at the end of 2020.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4

Public officials are required to disclose their assets, income, and liabilities, but penalties against those who fail to comply are limited. The Integrity Commission, which is tasked with overseeing these financial disclosures, has been criticized for being ineffective.

The public has the right to access government documents by law, although numerous public institutions are exempt. Furthermore, there is no enforcement of a provision that requires the government to respond to information requests within 30 days. A 2015 law regulating public procurements has not been fully implemented, despite promises by the PNM government to do so. In late 2020, legislation was drafted to fully enact the public procurement regulations, though it excluded government-to-government contracts. Subsequently, the Office of Procurement Regulation would have no oversight of legal, medical, financial, accounting, and auditing services, as well as any other intragovernmental contracts as defined by the Minister of Finance.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed and generally upheld in practice. Media outlets are privately owned and vigorously pluralistic. However, those regarded as most favorable to the government receive the bulk of state advertising. Under the 2013 Defamation and Libel Act, “malicious defamatory libel known to be false” is punishable by up to two years in prison as well as a fine, but prosecutions are uncommon.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally honors this provision. The requirements for registration of a religious organization, which confers tax benefits and other privileges, are not considered onerous. Some restrictions are placed on foreign missionaries; up to 35 per registered religious group are allowed in the country at one time, and they cannot stay longer than three consecutive years.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is generally upheld.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

Individuals are free to express their opinions in private conversations. The government has historically refrained from monitoring online communications; however, the national police launched a Social Media Monitoring Unit charged with monitoring social media platforms to detect evidence of child pornography, prostitution, and human trafficking, in October 2019. According to Police Commissioner Gary Griffith, the unit is not meant to surveil citizens.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respects this right.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Civil society is robust, with a range of domestic and international interest groups operating freely.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4

Labor unions are well organized and politically active, though union membership has declined in recent years. Strikes are legal and occur frequently. The law contains a provision allowing the Minister of Labor to petition the courts to end any strike deemed detrimental to national interests. Walkouts by workers considered essential, including hospital staff, firefighters, and telecommunication workers, are punishable by up to three years in prison and fines. The government threatened to impose criminal penalties in 2018 prior to a series of strikes protesting the planned closure of the Petrotrin refinery.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

The judicial branch is generally independent, but it is subject to some political pressure and corruption. Chief Justice Archie has been suspected of corruption since 2017, when he allegedly sought to influence the Housing Development Corporation.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Due process rights are provided for in the constitution, but they are not always upheld. Rising crime rates and institutional weakness have produced a severe backlog in the court system. Pretrial detainees and remanded individuals account for more than half the prison population. Most detainees’ trials begin seven to 10 years after their arrest, often exceeding the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. Corruption in the police force, which is often linked to the illegal drugs trade, is endemic, and inefficiencies have resulted in the dismissal of some criminal cases. Intimidation of witnesses and jurors has been reported by judicial officials.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

The government has struggled in recent years to address criminal violence, which is mostly linked to organized crime and drug trafficking. The national police reported 536 murders in 2019, and 517 in 2018. However, by December 30, 2020, there had been 394 murders, the lowest figure in eight years. In 2017, the Organized Crime Intelligence Unit was established “to pursue, target, dismantle, disrupt and prosecute” organized criminal groups and networks. Police have been criticized for excessive use of force, and many abuses by the authorities go unpunished.

Over a hundred Trinidadians have reportedly sought to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in recent years. Trinidadian security forces, supported by US military personnel, raided multiple locations in 2018 and arrested individuals suspected of planning a terrorist attack on that year’s Carnival celebration.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Despite legal protections against discrimination on various grounds, racial disparities persist, with Indo-Trinidadians accounting for a disproportionate share of the country’s economic elite. Women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation.

Human rights groups have criticized the government’s unwillingness to address discrimination and violence against LGBT+ people. However, in 2018, the High Court ruled that the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act that criminalized same-sex relations were unconstitutional. The government vowed to appeal that ruling to the London-based Privy Council in late 2018; their case remains pending.

Immigration law does not adequately protect refugees, and Trinidad specifically lacks a system to process asylum claims. As many as 40,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers and refugees have entered the country in recent years, but authorities regularly seek to detain and deport these individuals as illegal immigrants, including those who registered their status with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Local courts have intervened to block deportations.

In June 2019, the government allowed refugees to register for a work permit during a two-week grace period. Over 16,500 Venezuelans applied for permits, which were originally valid for one year; they were subsequently extended until the end of 2020.

In a July 2020 press conference, the Minister of National Security claimed that “illegal immigrants” and “boat people”—derogatory terms for Venezuelan refugees—presented a potential health risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government targeted asylum seekers with more extensive coastal patrols and created a hotline for residents to report them. In December, 31 Venezuelans died after their boat sank en route to Trinidad.

As many as 70 Trinidadians were among those held by Kurdish forces in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, after the IS lost its territorial holdings there in March 2019. In November 2019, Trinidad’s national security minister met with US officials to discuss the possibility of repatriating them, though little progress had been made by the end of 2020.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Trinidadians and Tobagonians do not face significant constraints on freedom of movement or on their ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

While the government actively supports both domestic and foreign investment in the country, corruption and weak state institutions can make it more difficult to start and operate businesses. Business owners may face challenges registering property and enforcing contracts.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4

Most individual rights with respect to personal status issues like marriage and divorce are protected by law. The 2017 Marriage Act raised the legal marriage age to 18, officially making child marriage illegal.

Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, and domestic violence is addressed by specific legislation. However, enforcement of these provisions remains inadequate. According to 2018 data from the UN Global Database on Violence against Women, 30 percent of women in the country experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 19 percent experience sexual violence from a nonpartner. Several high-profile femicides in 2020 and newly published data on violence against women increased public awareness of the issue.

Abortion is illegal in most cases, and there is reportedly little public awareness of legal exemptions for abortions to save a woman’s life or preserve her physical or mental health. A woman can be imprisoned for up to four years for obtaining an illegal abortion.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

The law provides basic protections against exploitative working conditions, though these do not apply or are poorly enforced for informal and household workers in particular. While the government has stepped up efforts to combat trafficking in persons, convictions have been lacking, and funding for services to trafficking survivors has been cut. Venezuelan women are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking.

According to reports, more than two dozen police are under investigation into alleged involvement in sex trafficking between Trinidad and Venezuela as of 2019. The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2020 report notes that government officials and police have at times been facilitated trafficking rings, accepting bribes from brothel owners to transport victims to various locations.