Caribbean Region

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Caribbean Region

The Caribbean evokes many images: warm beaches and tropical rhythms, slavery and plantations, poverty contrasted with celebrity hideaways, endangered species, dictatorship, and democracy. Beyond the stereotypes lie diverse peoples, political systems, and cultures. The Caribbean is both a geographic region and a group of cultures with a common history. To the north are the Greater Antilles, consisting of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and

Haiti), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. To the south, the many islands of the Lesser Antilles bend southeastward to the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, lying within sight of Venezuela. Possessing a common history and political legacy, other nearby countries such as Belize, Guyana, French Guyana, and Suriname are also considered part of the Caribbean region.

A striking geographic feature of most Caribbean states is their small size. Cuba (110,861 square kilometers; 42,790 square miles) is the largest nation, about the same size as Pennsylvania. Tiny Anguilla (134 square kilometers; 52 square miles) is the size of Washington, D.C. Although small, many of these islands are densely populated. Barbados (621 persons per square kilometer; 1,608 persons per square mile) has twice the population density of the United Kingdom and three times that of Japan. Small size, limited resources, and regular occurrence of natural disasters contribute to the region's vulnerability.


The contemporary story of the Caribbean begins with the European invasion of 1492 and the subsequent elimination of the Arawak and Carib populations. Settlers needing cheap labor began importing African slaves in 1502. As the 1700s ended, more than one million slaves lived in the region. Caribbean slaves constantly struggled against their plight, creating a longing for freedom that still colors the outlook of Caribbean society. Britain abolished slavery in 1834, and France in 1848, but the institution remained in Cuba until 1886.

As Europe's major nineteenth-century power, Britain controlled most of the Caribbean, while the holdings of France, Spain, and the Netherlands gradually dwindled. In 1804 a slave revolt led Haiti to independence, followed by the Dominican Republic in 1844. Cuba and Puerto Rico found their fight for independence subsumed by the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although most Cubans welcomed the end of Spanish rule, friction over the United States' intervention dominated the political landscape for years afterward.

The path to independence for the British possessions, now called the Commonwealth Caribbean, was relatively peaceful. Locals were gradually included in education and civic life, although critics found the processes paternal and slow. Strikes and unrest in the 1930s led to a reexamination of colonial policies. After World War II (1939–1945), local self-rule and suffrage was expanded. Independence was envisioned through integrating colonies into a federal system. In 1958 the West Indies Federation was formed on a wave of optimism, but it soon disbanded due to nationalist aspirations, leadership conflicts, and mistrust between large and small islands. Instead of joining a federation, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago each became independent in 1962. Over the next twenty years, some islands maintained close ties with Britain as associated states while others became independent.

The United States played a major role in Caribbean life. Motivated by the ideologies of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and manifest destiny, economic expansionism, and national defense, the United States took an active interest in its Caribbean "backyard" as the nineteenth century ended. Invasion and occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), the Dominican Republic (1916–1924), and continued domination of Cuba left a legacy of both conflict and cooperation. During the Cold War, interventionism returned as the United States interjected troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, assisted Cuban opponents of communist leader Fidel Castro's (b. 1926) regime with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, invaded Grenada in 1983, and provided covert assistance to political allies across the region. The United States also sent economic aid and investment, which was welcomed by some but seen as exploitative by others. At the end of the twentieth century the United States was the largest trading partner of many Caribbean nations. For its part, the Soviet Union provided aid to Cuba and other states until the Cold War's end.

social and economic setting

Jamaica's national slogan "Out of many, one people" can be applied to the Caribbean as a whole. The largest ethnic group is comprised of the descendents of African slaves. Many people are of mixed ethnic background, and small numbers of Europeans, Asians, and Arabs live in the region. Contract workers from India, locally called East Indians, immigrated in large numbers beginning in 1845. East Indians make up 41 percent of the population in Trinidad and Tobago and 50 percent in Guyana.

Race and racism color Caribbean politics. Some people see a link between wealth, influence, and race. In the former Spanish colonies the political and financial elite remain strongly European. In the Commonwealth Caribbean, especially in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, ethnic pluralism has divided political parties along racial lines.

Race consciousness has had positive influences as well. Independence awakened interest and pride in the cultural contributions of Africans in the Caribbean, who were later joined by East Indian and other groups. An explosion of uniquely Caribbean artistic expression characterizes the region.

principal economic sectors


Agriculture: sugar, coffee, tobacco, bananas, spices

Financial services: offshore banking, insurance, corporate and marine "flags of convenience"

Mining: bauxite in Jamaica and the Guyanas, nickel in Cuba

Light manufacturing

Petroleum: Trinidad and Tobago, Dutch West Indies

Religion has been shaped by colonialism, slavery, immigration, and globalization . In the European colonies, Roman Catholicism is dominant. Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic communities are also present. Nondenominational Christian prayer groups and revival meetings attract large followings in some countries. In Aruba, 95 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Anglicanism and other Protestant traditions have a strong presence in the former British colonies. In Barbados, 67 percent of the population is Protestant, 4 percent is Roman Catholic, and 17 percent report no religious affiliation. Where East Indians live, Hindu temples dot the landscape. Suriname, reflecting the diverse makeup of its people, is 27 percent Hindu, 19 percent Muslim, 22 percent Roman Catholic, and 25 percent Protestant. Caribbean religion also draws strongly on African traditions encompassing Santeria, Vodoun (Voodoo), Macumba, Obeah, and Rastafarianism.

Historically, organized religion was tied to the elite and served as a defender of the status quo. The advent of the liberation theology perspective in the Roman Catholic Church, along with the emergence of reform-minded clergy in other denominations, produced a more critical view of society.

caribbean economies

Before Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) sailed to the region from Europe, the Caribbean people subsisted more or less in harmony with nature. Conquest altered the human and physical landscape. The colonies used slave or underpaid labor to export cheap raw materials to Europe while importing food and goods. The result was poverty and distorted development. Caribbean people became vulnerable to the outside world long before the term "globalization" was coined.

As local control grew during the twentieth century, governments pursued creative strategies to reduce dependency. Puerto Rico's "Operation Bootstrap" in the 1950s made the island an offshore manufacturing platform for the United States. Other nations have stressed tourism, financial services, and tax-free industrial zones. Trinidad and Tobago, a lucky exception, has large oil and gas deposits to underpin its economy. Although other Caribbean nations are strongly capitalist, in Cuba the government, not the markets, dominates economic life.

Economic reform and experimentation has had mixed results. Tourism dominates in many states, representing 60 percent of Barbados's gross domestic product, 40 percent in Jamaica, and nearly 30 percent in Cuba. Seeking new visitors, the Caribbean has developed nature and adventure tourism alongside traditional "surf and sand" resorts. Tourism, however, is a mixed blessing. Tourists' tastes change rapidly, cruise ships bring short-term visitors who do not spend money on hotels or meals, jobs can be low-paying, and crime or hurricanes can deter visitors.

The Caribbean struggles with free trade and privatization. Globalization has increased investment but lowered agricultural export earnings. Caribbean wages are higher than those paid by employers in Africa or Asia. The World Trade Organization objects to special trade arrangements the Caribbean enjoys with the European Union. Privatization and budget cuts have eliminated government jobs. Many residents, fearful that employment opportunities are declining, have chosen to emigrate . People in the Caribbean nonetheless enjoy a relatively good standard of living, with sufficient levels of nutrition, high literacy rates, and good public health facilities. According to the United Nations, seven Caribbean states have reached a "high level of human development," nine are at the "medium" level, and only Haiti has a "low" level.

The Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) was established in 1973 to create a single market and foster regional cooperation. All Commonwealth Caribbean independent states plus Haiti are CARICOM members, with others holding associate member status. A free trade agreement between CARICOM and the Dominican Republic was signed in 2000. CARICOM goals include

Caribbean Government Types
Date of independence in parentheses
Associated territoryRepublic/CommonwealthConstitutional Monarchy/Parliamentary Democracy
source: Courtesy of author.
France:Cuba (1902)Antigua & Barbuda (1981)
French GuyanaDominica (1978)Bahamas (1973)
GuadeloupeDominican Republic (1844)Barbados (1966)
MartiniqueGuyana (1966)Belize (1981)
Saint BarthelemyHaiti (1804)Grenada (1974)
Saint MartinSaint Kitts and Nevis (1983)Jamaica (1962)
The Netherlands:Trinidad and Tobago (1962)Saint Lucia (1979)
ArubaSaint Vincent and the Grenadines(1979)
Saint Maarten
United Kingdom:
British Virgin Islands
Cayman Islands
Turks and Caicos
United States:
Puerto Rico
Virgin Islands

inclusion in the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement liberalizing trade among countries in North and South America.

The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), encompassing Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Granada, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, and the British Virgin Islands, was created in 1981 to promote political, social, environmental, and economic cooperation and to address the unique challenges faced by small island states. The OECS has set the ambitious goal of creating a single economy among its members with the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. OECS members share the Eastern Caribbean dollar and monetary policy managed by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.

A companion body to the OECS is the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. Created in 1967, the court manages the members' legal systems, oversees educational resources, and hears appeals. Like other Commonwealth Caribbean states, OECS countries retain the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the court of last resort.

caribbean governments

Caribbean governments fall into three categories: associated territories, constitutional monarchies (also called parliamentary democracies), and fully independent states.

Associated Territories. Associated territories are not legally sovereign and rely on Europe or the United States for defense, diplomacy, and economic policy. All have some local democratic rule and may have observer status in international organizations, field sports teams abroad, and pursue a separate identity for themselves internationally.

The French Overseas Territories are part of the French Republic and have some local autonomy. In Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles the Dutch monarch is head of state. A unicameral legislature sets policy and selects a prime minister as head of government. The British territories share the monarch as head of state and similar governmental structures. In the Westminster parliamentary system, local elected legislative councils chose a prime minister to lead the government. Local courts provide initial and appellate judicial proceedings, with the court of last resort residing in London.

The United States has had colonies of its own. In the Caribbean, the Spanish-American War (1898) made Puerto Rico a possession of the United States, and the Virgin Islands were purchased by the United States in 1917. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth associated with the United States; Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 but do not vote in presidential elections. The relationship with the United States has been a source of controversy and occasional violence by a small independence movement. Other Puerto Ricans have advocated statehood. In plebiscites held in 1967, 1993, and 1998, voters chose to retain commonwealth status.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are an unincorporated territory managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections. Governance is defined by the Revised Organic Act of July 22, 1954, which grants a locally elected governor and senate.

Constitutional Monarchies and Parliamentary Democracies. Like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, some Commonwealth Caribbean states retain the British monarch as head of state but are otherwise fully sovereign. A Westminster-style parliament selects the cabinet and prime minister, and together they make legislation and administer the nation. Elections are held when the government loses its majority in parliament or every five years, whichever comes first. Domination of the legislative and executive agenda, as well as the power to schedule elections, gives the ruling party an advantage over its opponents.

The British monarch personifies the ties that bind the Commonwealth Caribbean and England. As in colonial times, the monarch is represented incountry by a governor-general , who is chosen by the local government. The governor-general's duties are symbolic, but he or she can greatly affect the country. For example, when the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada collapsed in fratricidal violence in 1983, the invading U.S. troops immediately sought to secure the safety of Governor-General Paul Scoon (b. 1935), thus symbolizing a return to legal order.

A legacy of colonialism is the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which as of 2004 remained the final appellate court for the Commonwealth Caribbean. Not originally controversial, the court has been criticized by the attorney general of Trinidad and Tobago and others. These critics wish to sever this tie to England as a symbol of true independence. Negotiations to replace the Judicial Committee with a Caribbean Court of Justice began in the 1970s. A timetable for countries to join the new court was created in 2004.

Fully Independent States. The Caribbean is home to a variety of republics and commonwealths. In the former British colonies a locally appointed president replaces the monarch as head of state; in other respects, their Westminster-style institutions are similar to those of the constitutional monarchies. The Spanish Caribbean republics—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti—have been plagued by military coups , tyrannical dictators, and human rights abuses. After a civil war in 1965 the Dominican Republic gradually replaced dictatorship with elections, multiple parties, and a stable government. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, rather than building Western-style institutions, established a communist system of government based on single-party rule and fundamentally different assumptions about politics, power, and citizen participation. Haiti's dream of building an open and competitive political system that respects human rights is ongoing. The nation's political challenges reflect a people racked by poverty, stark divisions between rich and poor, depleted resources, and environmental degradation. Although the international community provides some assistance, Haiti's plight often drifts from the global public's view.

political style in the caribbean

The cultural mosaic of the Caribbean has produced distinct political styles. The Dominican Republic has known dictators such as Rafael L. Trujillo (1891–1961), who ruled with an iron fist from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961. With the exception of Cuba, haunted by the dramatic, charismatic, and controversial leadership style of Fidel Castro (b. 1926), the caudillo (military strongman) is a thing of the past in the Spanish Caribbean.

Political evolution of the Commonwealth Caribbean, steeped in British formalism, has been less dramatic than that of its Spanish-speaking neighbors. Leaders of the independence movement proudly sought to beat the English at their own game by earning university scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge, winning at cricket, and creating stable political institutions mirroring Westminster.

Nonetheless, politics in the Commonwealth Caribbean have also boasted plenty of local style, charisma, and occasional violence. Jamaican Michael Manley (1924–1997), who served three terms as prime minister, was a gifted orator who commanded the global spotlight as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of less-developed nations in the 1980s. The prime minister of Dominica, Eugenia Charles (b. 1919), was compared to Britain's "iron lady" Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925). Trinidad and Tobago's Basdeo Panday (b. 1933) worked in a sugarcane refinery as a youth, earned a law degree in England, became an advocate for sugar workers, and was elected the nation's first East Indian prime minister.

The Commonwealth Caribbean's early leaders founded movements based on their personal appeal and promises to wring concessions from the British. In the 1970s, Grenada's New Jewel Movement embraced violence and a radical agenda, whereas the Jamaican Labour Party in the 1980s shared the conservative views of Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004).

Modern Caribbean political parties are less ideological, however, appealing to broader sectors of society. In some states, parties are based on patron-client relationships promising jobs and services. Critics contend that patronage leads to political tribalism and conflict. In Jamaica posses, or urban gangs, are recruited by political parties to distribute favors, maintain loyalty, and get out the vote. Although competition can turn violent, political violence is generally the exception. Indeed, most residents of the Caribbean were shocked in 1990 when a Trinidadian Islamic group attempted a coup and held the prime minister hostage for several days.

Political Challenges. Most governments in the Caribbean faced a crisis of confidence from the public in the early twenty-first century. In some states corruption is a longstanding issue. In others it is a relatively new concern, one which, when combined with growing crime, drug use, and declining services, calls into question the legitimacy of leaders and institutions. Cynicism and a nostalgic longing for romanticized better days are common reactions among the citizenry. Restoring the public's confidence in government is a major challenge, along with maintaining and improving the standard of living in an era of globalization.

the caribbean and the world

Caribbean governments are the product of globalization. The region participates in the global community through diplomacy, trade, cultural activities, and politics. Caribbean states belong to the United Nations and the Organization of American States and have participated in peacekeeping operations. Some nations, such as Barbados, with its economic progress and democratic political culture, are the envy of other developing countries. Cuba, for all the controversy that surrounds it, is celebrated for its achievements in health care and education. Haiti, on the other hand, reminds the world that much work remains. Ironically, people in the Caribbean chafe at foreign domination, yet simultaneously fear being ignored by rich and powerful nations. Often the world looks to the Caribbean only when a natural disaster or political drama temporarily captures the headlines. Caribbean nations—small and vulnerable but fiercely independent, hardworking, and creative—must cooperate with one another and with the global community to survive.

See also: Antigua and Barbuda; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; British Virgin Islands; Cuba; Dominica; Dominican Republic; Grenada; Guyana; Haiti; Honduras; Jamaica; Netherlands Antilles and Aruba; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Trinidad and Tobago.


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Dennis R. Gordon

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