Topic Five.

Lectures 13-15

Robert Buddan

October 21-28, 1999


Political tradition is an important foundation of a country=s politics. That tradition establishes those political ideas and institutions that have taken take root over time and in which the population has become acculturated. A people learn that tradition, that is, the norms by which the political system operates and such political values as human and civil rights, electoral participation and representation.

The political traditions of the Caribbean are varied and mirror those of the former and present colonizing powers. The region constitutes a representative sample of the main forms of democracy that exist in the world. For instance, the English-speaking Caribbean follows the British pattern of parliamentarism, the Dominican Republic follows the Spanish American pattern of presidentialism, Cuba follows the pattern of a revolutionary socialist democracy modeled off Eastern European communism, Haiti follows the French system which is a mixed form of presidentialism and parliamentarism, Puerto Rico follows the United States pattern. Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean operate a system consistent with the Netherlands, and Martinique and Guadeloupe=s political systems are an integral part of French political arrangements.

Two Traditions.

The variety of political systems in the Caribbean  can be simplified by classifying them under two broad categories: the Anglo-Caribbean and the Latin Caribbean traditions.

Anglo-Caribbean democracies share certain common traditions that distinguish them from Latin Caribbean systems.


(1) They are English-speaking and dominated by the Protestant ethic of individualism in politics compared to the Spanish and French-speaking Catholic ethic of collectivism in politics found in Latin America and the Hispanic and Francophone Caribbean. This individualism is thought to be more supportive of liberal democracy compared to the less liberal or more communitarian Catholic culture.

(2) They have parliamentary forms of government modeled off Britain rather than presidential or semi-presidential forms found in the Latin Caribbean where there is stronger influence from the United States and countries of the European continent.

(3) They have two-party or two-party dominant systems again following the British pattern rather than the multiparty systems of the Latin Caribbean (except Cuba) like those found in Spain, France and the Netherlands.

(4) They have plurality or first-past-the-post electoral systems like the British but in contrast to systems of proportional representation found in the Latin Caribbean. Proportional Representational systems are borrowed from Spain, France and the Netherlands.

(5) They have secular political cultures rather than ones in which religion plays a strong role in      politics. A tradition of Christian democracy exists in

Europe where Catholic movements had formed political parties to promote religious values in politics and this has come down to the Latin Caribbean.

(6) They have a longer tradition of peaceful, civilian government while the Latin Caribbean has been characterized by wars of independence and military governments. In fact, although Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic have been independent for a longer time than the Anglo-Caribbean countries their western-style civilian democratic traditions are shorter and still uncertain in such places like Haiti.


(7) They have strong Ademocratic assets@,[1] that is, conditions that support the functioning of democratic politics. They have relatively strong civil society organisations such as trade unions, professional associations, churches and civic associations. Also, their political parties and the tradition of regular, competitive elections is well established. Latin Caribbean countries tend to have strong states and an influential role for the military in politics going back to the period when the armed struggle and military strategy played a leading role in the wars of independence. This military has sometimes repressed civil society, human rights, political parties and elections.

Democracy and Democratic Traditions.

The two traditions are different in the quality of democracy that prevails.

Liberal democracy can be defined as a political system of free and fair elections, held at regular intervals, in the context of guaranteed civil and political rights, the accountability of government and where rules are established by a constitution.[2]

(1) The length of the experience with representative government, especially in Barbados, The Windward and Leeward Islands and Jamaica, an experience that goes back to the C17th, first under the Old Representative System (ORS) of the planter class and later to self-government under nationalist leaders.[3] The British did not practice democracy under colonialism, it was the idea of representative government under the ORS that nationalist leaders accepted and converted into post-independence democracy.

In contrast, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba experienced more centralised colonial administrations and upon attaining independence, experienced violent upheavals in their history. Under Spain=s imperial system, for example, colonial legislatures did not exist. English settlers had enjoyed the right to elect an Assembly which enacted laws for the internal government of the colony. This was not the case under the Spanish system.

In the Dominican Republic, independence was declared in 1821 but Haiti invaded and occupied the country until 1844. Spain reannexed it in 1861 but independence was declared anew in 1865. Then the US occupied it from 1916 to 1924 and after that it was governed by a military dictator from 1930 to 1961. It was invaded again by the US in 1965.[4] The country=s first free elections were held only in 1978.

Cuba was occupied by US troops between 1898 and 1902, 1906-1909, 1912, 1917-1923. A dictator nicknamed > the butcher= then ruled Cuba from 1925 to 1933, followed by another dictator named Batista from 1934 until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Cuban politics was dominated by the Cuban and American military, the planter class, multinational corporations, dictators and even the American mafia.[5]

The US occupied Haiti from 1914 to 1934 and helped the dictator, Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) to power in 1957. Duvalier ruled until 1971 when his son, Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) became the country=s dictator from 1971 until he fled into exile in 1986.

Stotzky says that the history of Haiti has been a tragic tale of corruption and military violence, ceaseless coups, assassinations, and massive violations of human rights.[6]

The democratic tradition in the Latin Caribbean suffered from American interventions to safeguard American commercial interests, its support of dictators for this purpose and the continuing strength of the  planter class of those countries in alliance with American multinational control of huge coffee, sugar and banana plantations. Hence, they came to be called >banana Republics=.

2. The acculturation of nationalist elites into the culture and practice of parliamentary democracy. With reference to the Anglo-Caribbean leaders, Payne said, AEnglish-speaking, colonially educated, the recipients of elite scholarships from Jamaica College to Oxford, Cambridge and London, what else could the Jamaican elite become but would-be parliamentary democrats.@[7] They acquired the habits and attitudes of the Westminster system of government and politics.

Indeed, the British required the Caribbean nationalist leaders to respect their institutions and the practices of parliamentary politics. It was only on this condition that they were willing to grant independence. In the case of Guyana, for instance, they suspended the Guyanese constitution when the Marxist People=s Progressive Party won the first national elections in 1956. The British intervened in Guyana and forced the party out of power.

The Latin Caribbean on the other hand inherited a non-democratic culture. They gained independence from countries that did not have a democratic tradition to pass on at a time (in the nineteenth century) when democratic ideas were still only developing. Those leaders came to power in a pre-democratic age.

Furthermore, while the Anglo-Caribbean leaders were forced to be flexible, compromising and consensual as they negotiated independence constitutions with Britain, the Latin Caribbean leaders had a less consensual style. They were more militant, confrontational, and uncompromising. This was because their colonizing powers were not willing to grant independence, as Britain was after 1945, and nurture their colonies towards more democratic constitutions. Latin Caribbean leaders had to fight wars of independence.

Their larger populations meant that they could amass a credible fighting force to take advantage of France=s weakness during the internal strife caused by the French revolution and the fact that Spain had passed the peak of its power.

The British colonies had much smaller populations and were less likely to have defeated Britain militarily since Britain was still a world power.

The weakness of Spain, in fact, encouraged the United States to seek control of Spanish territories such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The US was then more interested in promoting the commercial interests of its multinational corporations even with the support of dictators while Britain showed greater interest in its Acivilizing mission@, that is, passing on its culture and political model to its colonies and tutoring the colonies= leaders into the British ways of democracy.

3. The relationship between social classes and the state is regarded as another important explanation for the different democratic traditions. Dominguez  believes the history of slavery made Anglo-Caribbean peoples distrustful of power that was highly concentrated in the state. They valued freedom and developed suspicion towards centralized power. After slavery they sought to protect their African and Indian cultures from suppression and came to value the right to one=s own beliefs and the private ownership of property. In Trinidad and Guyana, the mutual suspicion of the races might have caused political instability but each race also found it in its perceived interest to resist domination by the other and to accept a system of competing parties on their behalf.[8]

The Latin Caribbean.

In the Latin Caribbean democracy did not fail so much as not being given a chance to work. The wars of independence in Cuba and the Dominican Republic were seen by the larger Hispanic populations to have been their victory and not to be shared with the ex-slaves. These Hispanic leaders did not come from the black masses and tended to see themselves more as extensions of the metropolitan elite than as among the common indigenous population. In Haiti, the Mulatto elite distanced itself from the blacks. The elites relied on dictatorship rather than democracy to maintain their privileges.


The United States intervened in 1915 claiming that the Haitians were immature and not yet ready for democracy. The United States created a constitution for Haiti which did not even permit elections of Haitian presidents. The US aligned itself with the Mulatto group so that after its occupation ended in 1930, Haiti was ruled by Mulatto presidents for 15 years. These presidents encouraged colour discrimination in all aspects of social life such as appointments to government administration and membership in social clubs. Elections in 1946 did produce a Black president, Dumarsais Estime, on a wave of nationalism seeking to resurrect Black values. However, Estime was overthrown in 1950. Another period of authoritarian rule was introduced under Paul Magloire supported by the Mulatto elite. After a period of autocratic and corrupt rule he was forced into exile in 1956.

This only opened the door for the election - by widespread fraud and violence - of Francois Duvalier. Duvalier posed as a nationalist leader of Haitian Blacks but was repressive of both Blacks and Mulattos. He established control over all aspects of Haitian life. The Haitian legislature became his personal instrument and he employed force to maintain control. Francois declared himself president-for-life and appointed his son, Jean-Claude, to be his successor, which he became in 1971.

The Duvaliers never pretended to be democrats. While the outward trappings of a democracy were maintained - parliamentary assemblies and elections - the system was manipulated though force and fraud, nepotism and religious symbolism (Voodoo). Jean Claude was eventually forced into exile in 1986 by the >people=s power= movement led by Jean Bertrand Aristide. Between 1986 and 1990, Haiti was governed by five different administrations, each purporting to lead a democratic transition. None succeeded because none had the support of the Black majority. Ultimately, Aristide overwhelmingly won presidential elections in 1990, the first free and fair elections in Haiti=s history. But Aristide was overthrown in 1991 and a brutal period of military repression followed. Even though Haiti has subsequently returned to civilian rule, its politics is still marred by violence and its elections are still highly suspect.[9]


Cuba=s first political system after independence operated under the shadow of United States imperialism. The infamous Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which allowed American intervention in the country=s affairs, limited the democratic nature of the constitution. American involvement was, however, more for economic and strategic reasons and less out of a belief that the Cubans (not being Black) could not govern themselves.

Government was usually run for the personal enrichment of office holders, congress was largely inactive and presidents were typically autocratic. Dominguez says that there was little check on executive power, the inaction of congress made a mockery of legitimate political democracy and an unchecked executive and an unenforced constitution did not inspire confidence in the belief in democracy.[10] The worst of the authoritarian rulers, like Batista, restricted freedom of the press, freedom of association and political activity.

In 1905, the first election was so corrupt that the opposition party withdrew its candidate. The opposition later revolted against the government leading to American intervention.

In 1917, the president won elections by widespread coercion and electoral fraud. This led to another opposition revolt. The US intervened on the side of the government. The elections of 1920 was also characterised by fraud.

Congress acted on the budget only half the time from 1902-1925 reinforcing the tendency towards presidential autocracy. The purpose of government in Cuba, in practice, was to advance the interests of the office holder.[11]

There is hardly a history of Cuba that is not replete with detailed descriptions of corruption in government, through every administration. The party system was not rooted in the people. The leaders of the parties were well off. Their policies supported business and received little support from labour. This only led to military backed government in 1933 which was overthrown in 1934.

Especially after 1952, elections were no longer a source of legitimacy and the government repressed the opposition. Violence had become endemic in politics.

Knight tells the tale in this way:

ABetween 1902 and 1959, Cuban politics, despite a record of frequent elections, could hardly be described as an exercise in democratic process. It consisted of graft, corruption, malfeasance, administrative incompetence, and blatant social insensitivity to the lower orders, especially the Afro-Cubans. It was government that operated in the shadow of the political and economic interest groups of the United States...Social unrest was endemic...[Presidents] used public office to serve private ends and showed scant regard for human rights. Machado and Batista were the most notorious, employing military force, selective assassinations, and constitutional manipulations to gain and keep office. Political corruption extended to the lowest ranks of government. One-fifth of the candidates in the 1922 elections had criminal records, and a frequent occupation of the legislatures was the passage of amnesty bills exonerating members of the government from past criminal actions.@[12]

The Cuban system was transformed to socialist democracy after the 1959 revolution. No election existed before 1970. Between 1967-1974 local government election achieved some degree of competition and autonomy. Candidates came from mass organisations and the communist party. Voting was not by secret ballot until 1974.

Socialist democracy must be seen in terms of the philosophy of class rule. Popular democracy has existed for the party members and supporters of the revolution but not for the opponents. In this sense, democracy diverted from the liberal form. Administration is centralised, opposition to the revolution is repressed and organisations lack autonomy. The only legal party is the communist party.

The Dominican Republic.

Wiarda points out that, AAmong Latin American nations, the Dominican Republic has been one of the most unfortunate and least successful in its efforts to develop a system of stable democratic rule. In its 150 years of independence, the authoritarian tradition and legacy have been powerful, and the democratic weak. In all that time, the Dominican Republic has enjoyed only twenty-five years, or one-sixth of its history, under what can loosely be called >democratic government.=...Democracy in the Dominican Republic, when it has existed at all, has been weak, tenuous, unstable, and uncertain...@[13]


The Dominican Republic has also had a history of authoritarianism. Hartlyn says, AThe Dominican Republic has had a troubled history. In the nineteenth century, this included foreign occupation, regional uprisings, and caudillo (strong man) rule; in the twentieth century, military occupation by the United States (1916-1924) was followed by the thirty-one year reign of Rafael Trujillo (1930-61).@[14]

The United States had considered taking over the country when it became independent but the US civil war initially prevented it from doing so. However, after a period of great upheaval in the Dominican Republic the US began to intervene from 1905. It actually intervened militarily in 1916 and occupied the country for eight years. As president, Trujillo built an effective state but power was concentrated in his government. He used brutal methods and his rule was racist. He built state commercial monopolies to enrich himself. Hartlyn explains that, ATrujillo=s economic holdings at the time of his death were incredibly extensive. Around 80 percent of the country=s industrial production was in his hands. Almost 60 percent of the country=s labor force depended directly or indirectly on him, 45 percent employed in his firms and another 15 percent working for the state. And all of these industries, land holdings, sugar mills, banks, and other enterprises became >state patrimony.=[15]

Facing growing opposition, the US increased its interventionist activities in 1959 for fear that a radical Cuban-type movement might come to power. Trujillo was finally assassinated in 1961. A democratically elected socialist government was then elected but was overthrown by the military in 1963. A civil war erupted and the US military intervened in 1965 to prevent the overthrown socialist president, Juan Bosch, from retaking power. Joaquin Balaguer, a protégé of Trujillo=s, supported by the conservatives and favoured by the US, won elections in 1966 and went on to dominate the country=s politics for the rest of the century. Through repressive polices, support from the military and electoral fraud, Balaguer continued to win elections until he lost in 1978. Balaguer was back in 1986 until he once again lost elections after more complaints of corruption, racism and electoral fraud damaged his regime.

The period since 1978 has been one of more progress in terms of respecting civil rights. A younger generation of more democratic-minded politicians have come to the fore although the legacy of the past remains strong in the country=s institutional and cultural setting. The country still needs time to consolidate its democracy.


Suriname has had a short period since independence to develop a democracy and its record so far is quite mixed. After obtaining independence in 1975, the country=s politics was polarized by ethnic divisions and conservative post-colonial regimes whose supporters retained strong sentiments in favour of the Netherlands.

A military coup led by Desi Bouterse in 1980 brought a regime to power that suspended democracy and declared itself socialist. It had strong popular support modeling some of its policies off Cuba and socialist Grenada and tried to identify with the Caribbean. It faced hostility, however, from the US and Holland, and neighbouring countries such as Brazil. Growing economic crisis and political instability forced the regime to hold elections and civilian rule was restored under free and fair elections in 1987.

An interim government was established but the military intervened again in 1990. This time, new elections were called as early as 1991 and civilian government was restored. However, the military retains indirect influence in Surinamese politics through an executive council of state which can veto some laws from the legislature. The military has an affiliated political party through which it is involved in politics. Surinamese politics is therefore not yet completely separate from military politics and the constitution is not fully under the control of civilians.


The Modern Tradition.

The historical tradition of democracy has produced a modern tradition of Caribbean democracy.

1. Weak and Strong Democracies.

Caribbean democracies today might be differentiated between those that are stable, those that are fragile and those that are not regarded as liberal democracies at all. Qualitatively, they can be ranked differently on measurements of democracy.

Griffith and Sedoc-Dahlberg[16] list these countries on the basis of their rankings in political and civil rights (1995), classifying them as Afree@, Apartly free@ and Anot free@.

Those countries classified as Afree@ were: Barbados, Belize, the Bahamas, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad, St. Kitts, Guyana, Jamaica (in roughly that order).

Those regarded as Apartly free@ were: Antigua, the Dominican Republic, Suriname and Haiti, in that order.

One country was classified as Anot free@, that being Cuba.

The importance of the finding lies in the fact that the Anglo-Caribbean countries, as a whole, ranked higher and at the top of the list while the Latin Caribbean countries were in the middle or bottom rankings.

2. Trends in Democracy.

A current concern is, what conditions might lead to the decline of democracy in the Caribbean, or how sustainable is the democratic tradition under present conditions?

There appears to be two trends in politics in the 1990's and both might have to do with the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, politics is reflecting  reduced levels of voting, smaller memberships of political parties and greater cynicism towards politicians. This is seen in the Caribbean as well.

On the other hand, there is another trend showing a stronger consolidation of democracies in the region. For instance, many countries have moved passed crises of democracy: Guyana has progressed from the authoritarian period of one-party dominance through a succession of rigged elections since 1968 to its first free elections in 1992. Trinidad too has moved beyond the one-party dominance of the Eric Williams period since 1986 and has survived attempted coups in 1970 by the military and an actual coup by Black Muslims in 1993. Jamaica has made it through its most violent election campaign of 1980, the bogus election of 1983 and the one-party parliament from 1983 to 1989. Grenada has seen the end of the authoritarian regime of Eric Gairy in 1979 and the failure of the revolutionary regime in 1983. The Authoritarian governments of Vere Bird Sr in Antigua surviving by doubtful elections has passed since 1992. Gairy and Bird had led corrupted democracies. 

In the Latin Caribbean, the worse seems to have passed. The old corrupted leadership of the Dominican Republic was finally replaced in elections in 1996 after an attempt to steal the elections of 1994 failed. Haiti received a modern constitution in 1987 and its first freely elected president was Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991. A new president was also freely elected in 1996.

Cuba still remains outside of the liberal democratic framework but its new constitution of the 1990's also shows some differences with the past. The country no longer declares itself a communist country although the communist party is still the main party. It is no longer officially an atheistic state and forms of economic liberalization have taken place. Cuba does not have free elections by liberal standards but its electoral competition between candidates is fair. Suriname obtained independence in 1975 and came under military rule from 1980 to 1990. It has held free elections since 1991.    

3. Challenges to Democracy.

The future of the democratic tradition depends on how these systems respond to certain challenges, such as:

Newness. It will take time for the Latin Caribbean countries to develop the habits of democracy and to consolidate democratic practices. For example, the electoral machinery in Haiti and the Dominican Republic is still weak and so is the commitment to political parties and voting.

Structural adjustment. High foreign debts in Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana and Haiti make it necessary for governments to cut back on what it can do but at the same time the private sectors of these countries exhibit a lifestyle and mentality that raise doubts about their ability to take up economic leadership towards growth. The resulting serious levels of poverty lead to disenchantment with and respect for the political order.

Corruption and drug trafficking. The corruption of the political process and system of justice by drug traffickers, money launderers, citizens and politicians lead to declining confidence in these systems in countries such as Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Antigua.

Crime and gun-trafficking. Countries like Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad have shown a susceptibility to the importation of guns from the US, the forced deportation of criminals from the US, the involvement of drug gangs in crime, all leading to an increase in crime and a threat to the state=s ability to secure law and order creating more pressure to tighten up the laws even where this might restrict certain civil rights.

Racial Politics. Racial politics in Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname continue to create stress on the political order and raise doubts about the ability of the political system to protect races from discrimination.

Racial and political tribalism can lead to divisiveness and violence.[17] In Guyana, the present opposition party does not recognise the results of the 1997 elections and refuses to take its place in parliament.[18]  

[1] This term is borrowed from Evelyne Huber, AThe Future of Democracy in the Caribbean,@ in Dominguez, op.cit pp.74-98.

[2] Taken from Dominguez, op. cit, p.2

[3] See Payne, op. cit, for a discussion of what he calls, >the colonial crucible.=

[4] Jonathan Hartlyn, AThe Dominican Republic: Contemporary Problems and Challenges@, in Dominguez, pp.150-172.

[5] Jenny Pearce, Under the Eagle,1982.

[6] Irwin Stotzky, Silencing the Guns in Haiti,1997.

[7] Payne, op. cit, p.59

[8] Dominguez, pp.9-11

[9] See Kenneth Boodhoo, AHaiti: Prospects for Democracy,@ in Carlene Edie (ed.), Democracy in the Caribbean,1994.

[10] Jorge Dominguez, Cuba, 1978.

[11] Ibid.,p.39.

[12] Franklin Knight, The Caribbean: genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 1990, p.238.

[13] Howard Wiarda, AThe Dominican Republic: Mirror Legacies of Democracy and Authoritarianism,@ in Larry Diamond et al, (eds.) Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America,1989, p.423.

[14] Hartlyn op.cit., p.150.

[15] Ibid., p.155.

[16] Ivelaw Griffith and Betty Sedoc-Dahlberg (eds.), Democracy and Human Rights in the Caribbean,1997, p.248

[17] See for example, Ricky Singh, ATribalism and Race in Jamaica and Guyana.@ Caribbean Affairs,8,1, 1998.

[18] These issues are raised in Anthony Payne and Paul Sutton, (eds.) Modern Caribbean Politics,1993. Especially, the chapters by, Black, Ferguson, Premdas, and Meel.

Sixth topic Civil Society
Political Geography | Political History | Political Culture | Political Leadership | | Democratic Traditions | Caribbean Civil Societies | The Decolonizing State | The Caribbean Abroad