The Contemporary Caribbean

Joyce Toney – Hunter College

The modern history of the Americas actually begins with the modern history of the Caribbean. From the time Europeans ventured into the so-called New World in the late fifteenth century, the Caribbean has played a most important role in the unfolding of events that would subsequently shake the entire foundation of the world. The meeting of Africans, Europeans, and the indigenous people in the Caribbean is arguably one of the most interesting and important aspects of world history. It was in this region that one could perceive the worst aspects of inhumanity juxtaposed with a story of survival and triumph of the human spirit. Caribbean history unfolds like a drama and is a continuing saga of wars of various types, conquest of different sorts, and above all, resistance.

Soon after their arrival, Europeans destroyed the civilizations created by the aboriginal Carib, Arawak, and Ciboney. They brought oppressed Europeans to serve as their indentured servants, in addition to the millions of enslaved Africans. Caribbean people are now mainly African, with a minority of whites and East Asians. Most of the latter arrived from India after the abolition of slavery to replace the black workers, many of whom had left the plantations. By the twentieth century Caribbean society was mostly Creole. This term, in this context, refers to the new civilization based on African, Asian, and European culture. This rich medley is the dominant characteristic of the contemporary Caribbean.

Although the terms Caribbean and West Indies are used interchangeably, today West Indies generally refers to the non-Hispanic countries of the region. The history of those islands also embraces the South American countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana, and the Central American country of Belize. These areas were colonized by the British, Dutch, or French and share a similar history. Even in independence the former British colonies maintained that connection through organizations such as the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) and the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), which has recently expanded to include Suriname and Haiti.

After slavery was abolished most of the Caribbean remained under the shackles of colonialism. Haiti was the only country in which political independence and abolition were intrinsically connected. The other countries languished under colonialism, and there are still some colonies in the Caribbean today: Martinique and Guadeloupe (French); Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire (Dutch); and the British Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, and Bermuda (actually in the Atlantic Ocean). The colonies all have some type of autonomy that distinguishes their status from the crude colonialism of the past.


Political Situation

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed many changes in the Caribbean. Indeed, this period can be labeled the beginning of contemporary Caribbean politics. Several Caribbean countries received independence from Britain: St. Lucia in 1979, St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979, Belize in 1981, Antigua in 1982.

In Haiti the fourteen-year rule of dictator François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc," came to an end in 1971, and his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc," succeeded him. Jean-Claude's rule revealed cleavages and problems in the Duvalier system that led to ongoing turmoil as Haitians tried to grope their way out of despotism. Jean-Claude's ties with the prosperous, light-skinned elite led to doubts about his loyalty to the peasants who had supported his father. He was expelled from Haiti in 1986. The rise of the controversial, charismatic president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 introduced another era in Haitian history. The success or failure of democracy in Haiti remains one of the unresolved questions in the region today.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the attempts by Caribbean democracies to assert their independence during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. During colonialism, and immediately after, the countries of the Caribbean were safe supporters of the Western capitalist system. Great Britain and the United States held total control of the region, but in Jamaica, Prime Minister Michael Manley's flirtation with democratic socialism was a good example of this new national assertiveness.

Jamaica tried to resolve some of its economic problems—linked to the 1973 rise in the price of oil, which destabilized the fragile economies of developing countries—by imposing a new tax on foreign bauxite companies. This action was perceived unfavorably by the companies and the government of the United States. The companies responded with a decrease in production, lawsuits, and a propaganda war on Jamaican tourism.

On the political front, Manley saw an opportunity to venture beyond the usual boundaries and encouraged a friendship with Cuba. At that time Fidel Castro was interested in reaching beyond his borders and taking a leadership position in third world affairs. His ambitions and the Caribbean need to explore other political arenas called into question the hegemonic control of the region by the United States. Manley denied that he planned to change the Jamaican political system and argued that his was only an experiment with a new form of development. Yet the response to Jamaica's new ideas between 1972 and 1980 demonstrates the inability of these fledgling democracies to carve out their own paths of development.

The United States openly disapproved of Castro's overtures in Jamaica and cut back aid and political ties to that country. This move resulted in major financial problems for Jamaica. The economy declined in the 1970s, leading to political instability and an upsurge in violence and emigration. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga, defeated Manley and the People's National Party (PNP) in an election plagued by violence in 1980. This was the end of the nation's democratic socialism. Jamaica served as a reminder to the other Caribbean countries of the power that the United States had exercised in the region since the nineteenth-century Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary of the early twentieth century.

The political fragility of the Caribbean countries was also evident in the U.S. intervention in Grenada in 1983. The coup d'état that led to the overthrow of Prime Minister Eric Gairy was unprecedented in Anglo-Caribbean history. Gairy had ruled Grenada almost continually for the preceding thirty years. His regime, accused of corruption, was strongly opposed by the youth and much of the growing middle class. Opposition increased rapidly in the 1970s, as evidenced through strikes led by the left-leaning New Jewel Movement (NJM). The fall of Gairy's government in 1979 ushered in the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG), largely composed of NJM members. The leader, Maurice Bishop, was dynamic and charismatic. The PRG refused to hold elections and abandoned the Western-style democracy practiced in Grenada and in all of the independent former British colonies. The PRG called for "participatory democracy," claiming that it would better represent the masses than a traditional democracy, which generally limits citizen participation to voting and leaves the actual governing to politicians.

Additionally, the party endorsed the Soviet Union's system of non-capitalist development and allied itself with friends of the Soviet Union. Its close ties to the communist countries were evident when Cuba began building an airport on the island. Grenadians saw it as vital to the development of tourism, which was considered key to the country's development. The hostile response of the United States, coupled with economic challenges, led to major problems within the party. The ideas of Maurice Bishop conflicted with those of the more radical Bernard Coard. In 1983 Bishop was arrested and killed along with other party leaders. The confusion and violence led to deep fear in Grenada and the rest of the Caribbean, and gave an excuse to the United States to invade the country. The intervention marked the death knell for any experimentation with methods of development and political ideology not endorsed by the West.

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The Economic Situation

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was an even greater reminder that these small democracies would face economic problems for the rest of the century. In the face of economic problems resulting from the increase in oil prices, Caribbean countries accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These came at a tremendous cost in the form of the so-called structural adjustment policies. The poor countries were forced to cut back on health care, education, and other social aspects of the economy. The result was a discontented population and a threat to the already endangered governments.

More recent laws stemming from globalization are potentially even more dangerous to Caribbean economies than structural adjustment. Ironically, as a result of the onslaught from the larger world community, Caribbean countries rushed to reexamine their position on the globe. Recognizing the negative effects of small-scale economies, they made tremendous efforts to cooperate and unify. There was discussion of integration of the Anglo-Caribbean islands even before their independence: an attempt to federate politically in 1958 failed after four years.

Caribbean countries made several attempts to pick up the pieces left by the unsuccessful federation and create some type of unified political system. There were some visible successes. The most important were the University College of the West Indies (later the University of the West Indies), the regional shipping service, and the Caribbean Meteorological System. A milestone was the creation in 1967 of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) in Antigua. The CARIFTA Secretariat and the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) were created to help CARIFTA and integration in general. CARIFTA succeeded in its main mandate to increase intraregional trade. Yet Caribbean people recognized that, in light of the growing threat to preferential markets in England, they had to push for deeper integration. The leaders met in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, in 1972 and created the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). CARICOM came into official existence in 1973 with protocol based on the Georgetown Accord. At first, the member states of CARICOM were former British colonies, but Suriname joined in 1996 and Haiti in 2002. Other members of CARICOM are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas (a member of the Community but not the Common Market), Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. Associate members of CARICOM are Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. CARICOM's main goals areeconomic integration through a common market and common trade policies,functional cooperation (pooling resources and sharing services), and coordination of foreign policies.

Although CARICOM has had its failings, it has helped its members in their strides toward unity and integration. In 1989 the decision was made in Grand Anse, Grenada, to work toward the establishment of the CARICOM Single Market Economy (CSME). This thirteen-member organization came into effect in 2006, and the completion is scheduled to take place in stages between 2008 and 2015. CSME was designed as a single market "to facilitate the pooling of the region's financial, human and natural resources to build the economic capacity required to effectively respond to globalization and the mega trading blocs." One notable achievement of the CSME is the movement of labor between the member countries without the previous bureaucracy and red tape.

In addition to CARICOM, some of the smaller countries belong to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). This organization, established in 1981, has its own central bank, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB). The bank's goal is to promote a stable currency for these small countries. Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines all use the OECS dollar. This currency has held its own over the years, even as the money of countries such as Jamaica, Guyana, and even Trinidad and Tobago weakened in the uncertain world market.

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Caribbean Culture

The undaunted spirit of the Caribbean remains highly visible in its popular culture. The people used the day-to-day oppression of enslavement and colonialism as instruments for creativity in the art, music, and literature for which the region is known. Caribbean writers are recognized at home and abroad. In 1995 Derek Walcott of St. Lucia won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The literary world is also familiar with the works of C. L. R. James and V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad), Claude McKay (Jamaica), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados), and Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), for example. Many of these writers live abroad for at least some of the time, but their works are read and studied in the Caribbean.

Even more than its literature, Caribbean music has had a major impact on society at home and abroad. The Rastafarian movement, started in Jamaica in the 1930s, is closely associated with reggae. The songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Eric Clapton, Peter Tosh, Beres Hammond, Freddie McGregor, and others are known in all parts of the world and have revolutionized world music. In the southern and eastern Caribbean calypso and soca have helped to popularize West Indian carnival. Caribbean people carried their carnival celebration with them when they migrated. The Labor Day Carnival in Brooklyn, the Notting Hill Carnival in England, and the Caribana Festival in Toronto have contributed to the profile of Caribbean people in migration.

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Caribbean leaders recognize that the Caribbean community is more than the people who live on the islands. It is for this reason that major decisions taking place in the region usually include the voice of the Caribbean Diaspora. Emigration has been a response to economic problems since the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century has seen the exodus of Caribbean people to Europe (especially England), the United States, and Canada. Haitians, who first migrated to France and francophone Africa, have increasingly chosen the United States and Canada, too.

Late-twentieth-century Caribbean migration to the United States resulted from changing migration laws in this society. Before 1965 the United States had openly discriminated against some nationalities. The Immigration Act of 1965 ushered in a less discriminatory approach, moving away from the preference given to northwestern Europeans. The newly independent countries of the Caribbean sent thousands of their nationals to earn a living and create lives in America. Today, Caribbean immigrants live in large numbers in cities such as New York, Miami, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Caribbean people have made major contributions in all fields of American society. This post-1965 migration to the United States was predominantly female, compared to the male-dominated emigrations of the Caribbean past. Women used the nursing profession, for example, to become heads of hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care institutions. Yvonne Graham, a former nurse and founder of the Caribbean Women's Health Association in Brooklyn, was elected deputy borough president of Brooklyn in 2002. Similarly, Caribbean immigrants and their descendants play important roles in the labor unions, educational system, and other aspects of life in the United States.

The people at home continue to rely on their relatives abroad for remittances to provide education, shelter, and daily maintenance, especially where the domestic economy has denied its citizens any means of making a living. Indeed, remittances are largely responsible for the sustenance of many Caribbean societies. Yet emigration has its disadvantages for the sending society. In 2003 the United Nations conducted a study on the "brain drain" from developing nations. The study cited the Caribbean as a region that was losing too many of the best and brightest to emigration.

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Future Challenges

Compared to much of the planet, Caribbean people live in relative harmony with the outside world. They are not engaged in warfare (except for those migrants who have joined foreign military organizations). Also, in most Caribbean countries, because of a common culture and heritage, ethnic divisions are not significant. The exceptions are Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, where ethnicity has played a major role. During the colonial days and since independence, ethnic divisions between people of Indian descent and those of African descent have helped to shape the political discourse. This is an area of a potential hazard in the Caribbean. It will take political maturity from the leaders and increased education for the populace to address these important issues.

While problems exist where there are distinct ethnic groups, the entire Caribbean is marked by class divisions. Some of these economic differences among the population can be traced to colonialism, but some are of more recent development. The resentment brought on by poverty and lack of opportunities has led to high crime rates and a sense of despair among many in the Caribbean middle and working classes. Leaders have had to decide how many of their limited resources they can devote to crime fighting at the expense of education and health, for example. Yet their fragile economies could be destroyed if crime and the perception of crime loom large in the psyches of nationals and tourists.

Caribbean societies face dangers from globalization. The Caribbean lies between South and North America, where illicit drugs, especially cocaine, are produced and consumed. The cash-strapped governments of the Caribbean cannot compete with the finances available to major drug dealers, but they are forced to take from their limited resources to rid their waters and lands of the corruption, violence, and wasted lives resulting from drug dealing and consumption.The Caribbean countries continue to struggle to maintain a firm foothold in today's world. Their economic position places them somewhere in the middle of the world economies. Their relatively high level of education and the fact that the women and girls have equal access to education are cause for optimism. However, the nations' small sizes and limited resources are cause for concern in the future.

Caribbeans have been somewhat successful at selling their natural beauty and warm climate to tourists; however, hurricanes and other natural disasters such as the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti remain a threat. The factors of small-scale economies, unemployment, and its consequences of crime and disillusionment are major problems to confront in the future. The Caribbean people, for the most part, have done well in maintaining democratic forms of government and in acknowledging the need to work together.

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