Caribbean Politics Online

The Caribbean
Home | About Us | The Caribbean | Course Outline | GT22C Readings: Topics I-IV | GT22C Readings: Topics V-VIII | Our Department | Class Performance | Past Papers | Assessment | Links | Contact Us | Tutorial Times and Teaching Schedule | GT22D Readings


The Caribbean is often categorized in a number of ways; from a geographical zone bordered by the Caribbean Sea, to that region which today represents a 'melting pot' of cultures arising out of its historical development and experiences.

Below is an overview of the Caribbean defined in various ways, by different authors.

This first section is taken from Franklyn Knight's, "The Caribbean", (Oxford University Press), 1990.

Geography and geology.

"Conventionally, the designation of the Caribbean has been limited to the thousands of islands of varying sizes that stretch like an inclined backbone from the northern tip of the Florida peninsula to the slanting northern coastline of South America. Included in this depiction are the enclaves which today comprise Belize in Central America, and Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana in South America...The true Caribbean islands form an irregular outer gate both to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Altogether they span an area from longitude 59 degrees west to longitude 85 degrees west and range roughly within latitude 10 degrees north and 25 degrees north - almost totally within the tropics if one excludes the northern Bahamian Islands. The distances between the islands are not very great. Nor, with the possible exception of Cuba( more than 44,000 square miles or 120,000 square kilometers) and Hispaniola (more than 27,000 square miles or 76,000 square kilometers) are the islands very large."

"Geologically, most of the islands are limestone with granite and coral. Some islands, as well as parts of others, have steep, rough, and disconcertingly inhospitable terrains. This type of topography is commonly found in Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Guadeloupe (especially Basse Terre), northern Hispaniola, eastern Jamaica, and southeastern Cuba. Barbados and Antigua are flat, with the highest mountains barely exceeding one thousand feet. Central and western Cuba present broad vistas of gently undulating hills breaking the monotony of the extensive palm-studded plains. Some islands are precariously miniscule, such as those in the Grenadines, Anguilla, the Bahamas and the Caymans. The larger northern islands - Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which together occupy the island of Hispaniola), and Puerto Rico from the Greater Antilles. The double chain of islands found between Puerto Rico and Trinidad form the Lesser Antilles. During the days of sailing ships, the more northerly of these islands were called th Leeward islands while the more easterly ones - that is, those toward the wind - were called the Windward Islands. Sometimes this geographical distinction formed the basis for an administrative division, and while the designations have remained to the present day, the jurisdictional separation of windward and leeward has always conformed more to convenience than geography." (pp.3-5).

History-Indigenous Peoples.

Excerpt from Richard Hart's "From Occupation to Independence" (Pluto Press/Canoe Press), 1998.

"There is some doubt as to where the first inhabitants of parts of Cuba and Hispaniola, and possibly other islands in the Greater Antilles, came from. These were a pre-agricultural, food-gathering and hunting people whom anthropologists refer to as Ciboneys or Siboneys, the name being derived from the word siba, meaning stone, in the language of the later migrants who replaced them."

"The earliest evidence of human existence in the eastern Caribbean was located at an excavation site at Mill reef in Antigua and has been dated at about 3100 BC. Excavations have revealed the existence in the eastern Caribbean islands of a primitive pre-agricultural people who may or may not have been of the same origin as the Siboneys. Anthropologists have called them the Ortoroid peoples, because evidence of their presence was discovered at Ortoire in Trinidad. Similar stone artifacts to those found at Ortoroid sites have been found in Venezuela."

"...The first inhabitants of the Caribbean islands who had reached the evolutionary level of agriculture were probably migrants from northern South America. They are believed to have started their northward movement up the chain of the eastern Caribbean islands about 5,000 years ago. The first migratory wave was followed by others. The pioneers of this movement were a people who spoke a language or languages identified by anthropologists as of the Arawakan group."

" The Amerindians who first populated the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, and possibly also the Virgin islands and Antigua, have been designated by anthropologists as Tainos or Taino Arawaks. The later wave of Arawakan-speaking migrants who colonised the islands to the south of Antigua have been designated Igneri and may have been part of the South American tribe known today as Arawaks. Subsequently migrants from another tribe, Calinago but called Caribs by the first European arrivals, from whom the Caribbean Sea takes its name, replaced the earlier migrants. These migrations took place over many hundreds of years. Arawaks and Caribs are among the aboriginal peoples who still inhabit northern South America." (pp.1-3).

Culture-Caribbean People.

We turn to Alvin Thompson's " The Haunting Past," (Ian Randle/James Currey), 1997.

Survival of indigenous peoples contribute to the complexity of the Caribbean ethnic mixture. Thompson explains that:

"Today their largest numbers are located in the mainland territories of Belize, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In the islands small pockets of them exist in Trinidad, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica. in the last three of these they constitute mainly mixed Carib/African groups, sometimes referred to as black Caribs." In the 1790's most of the black Caribs of St. Vincent were conquered and banished to Belize, where many of them have been gradually absorbed into the wider Belizean population. in Aruba, the Amerindian population became so intermixed with Spaniards that it is generally believed that most Arubans today are of Spanish/Amerindian ancestry."

With the advent of the Europeans a new dimension was added to race relations in the region. The Europeans superimposed themselves on the Amerindians, forming an 'aristocracy of the skin', but also wielding considerable political and economic power. The Spanish, French, British and Dutch were the most dominant nationalities, but the region also attracted a number of Danes, Irish, Scots, Germans and Portuguese. Some Caribbean countries such as St Eustatius and St Thomas, experienced the residence of a large number of European nationalities, comprising mainly merchants and businessmen, in these active 'entrepots'. Even in less bustling colonies, such as Suriname and Berbice, a host of European nationalities might be represented in the heterogeneous garrisons comprising individuals who were often little better than merceneries.

Whites were eveywhere in the region, but in few colonies did they ever constitue a numerical majority for any substantial period of time. They did so in the early British, French and Dutch colonies before the era of large-scale African imports from the second half of the seventeenth century. In the Spanish territories, where large-scale plantation development did not get under way before the nineteenth century, they constituted an absolute majority for a long time. This was the situation in Cuba until at least the mid-nineteenth century, and in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico into the present century. In fact, most of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic still regard themselves as white. In reality, many of them though ostensibly white, are in fact of mixed blood. While still passing as white in the Caribbean, they are relegated to the category of Hispanics when they migrate to the USA. The Spanish territories apart, Europeans are still numerically conspicuous in such territoriesas Bermuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, the French Antilles and Saba. On the other hand their numbers are quite insignificant in Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Anguilla, Desirade and Haiti. A number of white communities still attempt to practise endogamy.

The Africans constitued by far the largest element in the population of the region from the eigteenth century. They came from a large number of ethnic groups or nationalities, but the majority, and certainly the most well-known, of them came from the ares of modern Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Dahomey and Angola. The Africans were introduced in significant numbers into nearly every Caribbean territory and are today the most visible group in the region as a whole. In some territories, such as Jamaica, Dominica, Carriacou, Anguilla, Barbuda and the Caicos Islands, they constitute a very large and sometimes almost an exclusive majority. Brought into the region mainly as slaves, they have had the longest and hrdest struggle to uplift themselves. Several of them now occupy important niches in all the main walks of life. In the majority of territories, they have become the inheritors of political power, but their economic standing is still rather weak. Intermarrying and intermixing to a greater or lesser extent with the other ethnic groups, they have produced offspring of all shades and colours. The substantial free coloured populations of the slavery period were largely the result of their sexual unions with Europeans.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Asians, chiefly East Indians, Chinese and Javanese, were introduced as indentured or contract labourers. Together, the total introduced into the region numbered perhaps just under one million. Several Chinese, in addition, migrated as entirely free persons, that is, not as contract labourers. Mnay Asians returned to their homeland, either immediately after the expiry of their contracts or after they had acquired some capital, but the majority of them remained in the region. At present East Indians constitute an absolute majority of the population in Guyana and significant minorities in Trinidad and Suriname. In other territories they represent much smaller percentages of the population, and in some instances are not a homogeneous or even a clearly identifaible group. In the three territories with large East Indian populations, there is competition and sometimes conflict between them and the Africans as eacch group strives for political, economic and social power within those societies. Nevertheless, except in Guyana during the 1960s, relations have not been marked by large-scale communal violence between these two groups.

Apart from Cuba, Chinese migration has always been small in number, constituting, for instance, only about 3 per cent of the total number of contract labourers introduced into Suriname between 1853 ane 1939. Only in Cuba was the situation significantly different, where the Chinese constituted the overwhelming majority of contract labourers imported in the nineteenth century. In the following century an even larger number arrived as free labourers and business persons. Even so, because of rabid racism against them most of them were not allowed to remain for long periods in the island. Duvon Corbitt gives what he considers as a conservative estimate of approximately 275,000 Chinese who entered the island between 1847 and 1924. Of these not more than 50,000 were in the island in the latter year.

The Javanese or Indonesians were recruited almost exclusively for the plantations in Suriname, but few of them also found their way to the Dutch Antillean territories. They continued to be imported as cantract labourers until 1939, a little more than two decades after East Indian immigration into that country had ceased officially. About 32,000 of them were imported into Suriname, and 20-25 per cent of those who survived re-migrated to their homeland. They are generally regarded as the laest assimilated of the migrants into the region. They arrived into the country after the demise of slavery and at a time when an increasind number of Indians were drifting away from the plantations to set up their own villages. In time they too established villages in quite distinct locations from the Africans and Indians. Following the achievement of independence by Indonesia, their homeland, in 1949, about half of them gave up their Dutch citizenship and many of them re-migrated. The census of 1980 listed them as constituting 16.3 per cent of Suriname's population. Their presence is still largely rural; few have entered the mainstream of political and social life in the country and their overall impact on Surinamese society is small.

The Syrian/Lebanese (Levantines) are another group of Asians who migrated, albeit voluntary, to the region in the present century. They can be found in most of the territories of the region, but their numbers are always small. As in West Africa and elsewhere, they were able to carve a niche for themselves in the business sector of the region, but not without a good deal of animosity from other groups. Africans and other oppressed groups tended to them as being given credit and other facilities denied to longer established groups in the society. There is some measure of truth in this assertion, but equally important is the fact that the Syrian/Lebanese made use of the breaks that they were offered, and often worked their way upwards where no breaks were to be obtained. Because of their small numbers they never maintained as distinct a presence in the various communites as some of the larger groups, but they continued to maintain close family ties both in the region and with their homeland. One of them, Edward Seaga, became prime minister of Jmaiaca from 1980 to 1989.

We must also mention the JKews who, while small in numbers in most of the Caribbean countries, maintained a distinct presence because of their religion and the long history of European anti-Semitism. For a long time they were banned from entering some Caribbean territories. The Spanish were perhaps the most intoleran towrads the Jews, banishing them in the late fifteenth century from continental Spain, confiscating their property and forbiddding their entry into Spanish American possessions. The British and the French did allow them on sufferance into some of the Caribben territories, such as St Kitts, Barbados, Jamiaca and Martinique, but they experienced political, religious and social disabilities which were imposed on them. It was in the Dutch territories that theyu were most welcome, ar at leats discriminated against. They became a significant and wealthy minority in Curacao, and to a lesser extent in St Eustatius, Aruba and Suriname. Their economic success became a source both of envy and influence. Gradually their presence became more acceptable and they moved into higher social circles. In 1684 Denmark even apopointed a Jewish governor in St Thomas. By the nineteenth century the Jews had become well-ensconced in Caribbean society and most of the disabilities against them had been or were soon lifted. Today, they exist as important entities only in a few territories such as Jamaica and Curacao. This is partly because many of them migrated to the USA and elsewhere, and partly because over time small groups became virtually assimilated into the white upper straum of society.

Historically the different groups mentioned above have been juxtaposed against each other in various ways: generally in competitive roles and sometimes in conflicting and even violent ones. There were aresa and periods of cooperation also, a feature which has become much more common in the post-independence period.

Common to all groups is the colonial experience which affected each in profound ways, although even so there were wide differences between various groups. Some groups, as we have seen,were exploited to a greater degree and for a longer period than others. That exploitation affected all groups deeply. Even the whites who exploited the other groups were themselves often exploited by metropolitan interests in Europe and came to resent their position as second-class Europeans."- (pages 6-9)

For perspectives on the Caribbean and its challenges in economic terms we turn to Ramesh Ramsaran in "The Commonwealth Caribbean in the World Economy", (MacMillan Publishers Ltd), 1989.

"In the late 1950s/early 1960s there were serious doubts with respect to the ability of the British colonies in the Caribbean to survive as independent nations. The British government saw the solution in terms of a political federation with a central government assuming responsibility for the destiny of these islands. The experiment eventually failed, (and), the countries of the region, beginning with Jamaica in August, 1962 decided to seek independence as individual units. This did not, however, dissipate doubts about the economic future of the islands, and the idea of closer political association- at least among some of the units- has lingered on into the present. A federation of all the previous participants remains a dream in some quarters, cropping up from time to time as a possibility which may have forestalled some of the political and economic difficulties which have emerged in the region. Awareness of the limitations posed by their respective sizes did, however, manifest itself in steps for economic integration and continued cooperation in certain areas which pre-dated independence.

The emergence of a large number of smalkl countries as independent nations has drawn attention to the development choices and possibilities faced by such states. Small states face certain peculiar economic problems. Small domestic markets and a highly skewed resource base make them particularly dependent on international trade. While exports . . . may be confined to a few commodities, imports may include a wide range of essential consumer and capital goods. It may be argued with some justification that many of the problems being experienced by small states can be found in large states. This, however, does not negate the fact that small areas and small populations do create certain constraints which may militate against development.

In a purely economic context, the question of size takes on importance when we seek to discuss the potential for development. Does a large area offer greater possibilities for development? Generally, one associates a greater variety in large area with respect to mineral resources, topography, climate, etc. Large areas also tend to carry large populations to support, though there are certainly exceptions to this rule. A small country tends to have fewer resources, but this is not necessarily an impediment to development. Development is not simply a function of available natural resources; it has a great deal to do with the development of a capability to exploit such resourcse. Development need not be constrained by resources obtaining within a country. Inputs can be bought from other nations. Until quite recently, the role of the human factor seems to have been missing in the economics literature which tended to emphasise non-human resources and institutional development. Natural disadvantages can be overcome with the creation of an environment that encourages initiative and enterprise. In a trading situation production need not be constrained by market size. Exports to foreign markets can spur the creation of a wide range of industries which may not have been possible if only the local market was available.

There is no correlation between size and growth. Some smallnations are known to have grown faster than larger ones. Some have even attained atandards of living equal or superior to that of larger and better endowed countries. A country, however, can grow, as Demas pointed out some yaers ago, for a variety of reasons. It may have a high growth sector (e.g. oil, bauxite, tourism) that damoinates the total economy. Substantial foreign capital inflows may also spur a rate of growth not warranted by domestic savings. Growth, Demas was at pains to show, was not synonymous with development. 'It is my view that the fundamental criterion of underdevelopment is the extent to which an economy has undergone structural transformation and has acquired the continuing capacity to adapt and to apply innovation.'

On the Caribbean's poltical tradition, we turn to "Democracy in the Caribbean: Myths and Realities" edited by Calene Edie, (Praeger Publishers), 1994.

"Among developing nations, the Caribbean has the largest number of liberal democracies. The Commonwealth Caribben states (hereafter English-speaking Caribbean), with a few exceptions, have maintained competitive parliamentary democracies for over three decades and have largley escaped the kinds of social and political upheaval apparent in many parts of the Third World. Over the past decade, there has been renewed interest in democracy in developing nations, dispelling the pessimistic view of the previous decades that democracy could not be achieved in the socioeconomic environment that preveailed in those states. Despite the longevity of democratic institutions there, Caribbean states have not been frequently analyzed as have other regional clusters.

The Caribbean encompasses virtually every type of democratic experience in developing nations. Since independence, some nations have had relatively stable democracies (Jamaica, Barbados, Belize); some have persisited in the face of crises and lapses (Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Antigua); some have cycles of democratic attempts and military interventions (Haiti, Suriname); and there is one case of a failed democracy that consolidated into authoritarian rule, with the potentail of democratic rebirth (Guyana).

While there is considerable political freedom throughout that (the English-speaking Caribbean) part of the region (with a few exceptions), rights are guarateed, the rule of law prevails, elections are held at regular intervals, and so on, the economic conditions of the majority of the people have forced them to give consent to the political system.

The political differences between the English-speaking nations, with largely liberal democracies today, and the others are quite apparent. Historically, Caribbean societies were all authoritarian and the postcolonial state inherited at the independence was decidedly antidemocratic.

Author, Jean Grugel in "Politics and Development in the Caribbean Basin:Central America and the Caribbean in the New World Order" (MacMillam Press), 1995, also comments on the political tradition of the region's states.

"The most outstanding feature of regional politics is the contrast between the political systems in the Commonwealth Caribbean, and the Central American mainland and the Spanish and French-speaking insular Caribbean. Westminster systems prevail in the Commonwealth Caribbean whereas on the isthmus the only consolidated democracy to be found is in Costa Rica, where there is a tradition of unbroken elections since 1953. In the English-speaking Cariibean politics is based around representative democracy, meaning regular free elections, a competitive party system and the peaceful handing over of power from one party to another. Violations of human rights are relatively few and civil liberties in general respected, in sharp contrasts to the conflictive and violent politics of much of the rest of the region."