The Caribbean in Transition

Sir Keith Hunte – Emeritus – University of the West Indies, Barbados

The years following the launch of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 saw the Caribbean catapulted onto the world stage at the height of the Cold War. The dramatic outbreak of the revolution and the establishment in this hemisphere of the first socialist state that would in short order become a member of the family of socialist states led by the U.S.S.R. grabbed headlines throughout the world. While the events in Cuba attracted more international press coverage than any other political drama that unfolded on this side of the Atlantic, the majority of colonial and dependent territories in the Caribbean had also reached a critical stage in the process of decolonization and nation building. The number of independent states grew from three in 1960 to sixteen in 1983.The majority of countries that became independent at this time were former British colonies that had earlier agreed to federate as they continued, in close consultation with the British government, to move toward independence. The Federation of the West Indies was launched in 1958 and dissolved four years later, paving the way for individual countries that had joined the federation (and others that had declined to join) to proceed toward independence as separate political entities. This process had been in gestation since the forties. Within that same time frame, the other imperial countries that had a presence in the Caribbean— France, the Netherlands, and the United States—sought viable solutions to determining the future status of their respective colonies.

It is necessary to place these developments in some historical perspective. The process of decolonization in the Americas and the Caribbean had been under way for more than two hundred years. The people of Haiti, at tremendous cost to themselves, fought for their freedom, and when they attained independence in 1804, they were only the second independent country in this hemisphere, after the United States. The Dominican Republic became a sovereign state in 1865 in substantially different circumstances. Cuba joined the ranks of independent states in 1902.


Puerto Rico

Those who lived in colonial territories at midcentury could have been under no illusions about the challenges they faced as they contemplated their options: independence or greater autonomy while still remaining in a colonial relationship. A critical question was whether a small Caribbean country with limited resources could sever its colonial ties and remain or become economically viable. For Puerto Rico, the terms of its relationship with the United States had been on the table for some time, and a tolerable and seemingly viable solution had been found when Congress passed Public Law 600 of 1950, establishing the associated free state or commonwealth.

It was Muñoz Marín, founder of the Popular Democratic Party and, in 1948, the first Puerto Rican to be elected governor (and reelected for three more terms), who played a crucial role in securing adequate support for this package in Washington and in Puerto Rico. In a referendum held in 1951 the people of Puerto Rico endorsed the package. The agreement gave Puerto Ricans autonomy in internal matters, automatic access to U.S. citizenship, and direct access to the services of the federal government. Puerto Rico would have full control of the judiciary and the legislature. In 1967, when the matter of the constitutional status of Puerto Rico was due to be considered by the United Nations, another referendum was held. Sixty percent of voters endorsed the status, 39 percent opted for statehood, and less than 1 percent for independence.

Coincident with the introduction of associated status came the implementation of an aid package aimed at overhauling and energizing the economic structure of the island. The program carried the label Fomento or Operation Bootstrap. The initial gains were so impressive that it became a model for plans developed in other parts of the Caribbean and throughout the world, plans intended to kick-start the inflow of foreign investment and promote industrial growth and development in the predominantly agriculture-based economies of the third world.

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The French Caribbean

In similar fashion, the people of the French Caribbean territories opted for a revised colonial relationship with France, one that favored the policy of assimilation of the territories into France rather than to move toward greater autonomy or independence. The matter was put to the electorate of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana in a referendum held in 1962; a majority of voters expressed support for assimilation. Had they opted for greater autonomy, they would have stood to lose access to the network of social security and other benefits that they enjoyed, along with the status of citizens of France residing in the overseas territories.

In 1966 General Charles de Gaulle, president of France, visited Martinique; at the formal ceremony that was held to welcome him, Aimé Césaire, eminent man of letters and political activist, expressed a minority view that drew attention to the attendant psychological and emotional costs, especially to the young generation. Césaire cautioned: "We can no longer avoid a problem that obsesses our youth: the problem of remodeling our institutions (I refer to our local institutions) so that they will be better suited to our Antillean conditions … so that we may no longer have the feeling, the most depressing feeling, that they helplessly look upon the unfolding of their own history, the feeling that they submit to history, instead of making it; in short, the feeling of being frustrated about their future."

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The Dominican Rebublic

The dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina overthrew the elected president of the Dominican Republic in 1930 and for the next thirty-one years ruled with an iron hand. Trujillo was able to benefit from a tide of anti-American sentiment, the consequence of the fact that the U.S. Marines had occupied that country in 1916 and, after their withdrawal in 1924, the U.S. authorities retained control of the Customs Department.

Until his demise in 1961 Trujillo would promote the Dominican Republic as a white Hispanic society, notwithstanding the fact that cheap labor from neighboring Haiti was a virtually indispensable part of the workforce, especially in agriculture. Trujillo succeeded in modernizing the economy and strengthening the army without effecting any improvement in the political or social life of the country.

Early in 1962 and with substantial backing from the United States, a council of state set about restoring a semblance of constitutional rule and legally constituted governmental authority. In the elections that followed in December, the first such to have been held in forty years, Juan Bosch won the presidency. Bosch tried to introduce an austerity program and take other similar measures to effect necessary repairs to the economy. Within nine months of taking office Bosch was overthrown by the military and replaced by a three-man civilian junta. The eighth change of government occurred in April 1965, when the government of Donald Reid Cabral was thrown out of office by supporters of Bosch.

As the situation spun out of control, a nervous President Lyndon Johnson dispatched U.S. forces to the country. This action was widely condemned throughout the Americas. The occupying force was to fall under the aegis of the Organization of American States (OAS). Brazil agreed to contribute a contingent of 1,250 men; Paraguay, Costa Rica, and Honduras sent smaller contingents. The civil war that broke out claimed over three thousand lives. New elections were set for June 1966. Victory went to Bosch's archrival, Joaquín Balaguer. The spectacle of America's continued role as quarterback to the wining political teams projected the image of the Dominican Republic as a U.S. client state.

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Next door in Haiti, a population of over five million people experienced political stagnation under the dictatorship of François Duvalier. The country struggled with mounting fiscal deficits, international isolation, and unresolved social tensions, all of which constituted adequate material for political exploitation by President Duvalier and his son, who succeeded him. Duvalier built support for his regime by championing the cause of noirisme and winning support from black middle-class businessmen and urban professionals and by mobilizing support from the "section chiefs" who were the traditional leaders in the predominantly rural areas. He rode the wave of nationalist sentiment that had been propelled by a populist movement led by black intellectuals at the time of the military occupation of Haiti (1915–37). He clearly exploited the growing anticommunist backlash from the Cuban Revolution and used it as cover behind which he could eliminate political opponents.

As the Dominican Republic struggled to maintain some semblance of a democratic system of government, Haiti remained firmly in the grip of Duvalier. In 1963 a row broke out between Venezuela and Haiti over the granting of passes of safe conduct to Haitian nationals who had taken refuge in the Venezuelan embassy in Port-au-Prince. Also at this time, the Dominican Republic strongly protested the invasion of its embassy in the Haitian capital and moved its forces into position on the border between the two countries. The OAS was able to defuse the matter before it could escalate and get out of control.

In all of this, Duvalier's stocks on the local political market got a boost as he sought to claim a victory for the "tough" stance he had taken in the face of his powerful neighbors. Shortly before his death in 1971, Duvalier engineered a further amendment to the constitution, one that enabled him to name his successor, albeit subject to ratification by the electorate. He chose his son, Jean-Claude.

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At the start of 1958, the Batista regime was well entrenched in Cuba. As Castro mobilized his army of irregulars in the Sierra Maestra region and proclaimed an armed revolution, Fulgencio Batista, with the backing of his professional army, seemed likely to be able to withstand the threat. But his support from civilians behind the lines disintegrated dramatically, and so by year end, he was driven out of office. Predictably, he fled to the Dominican Republic, leaving the government in the hands of the revolutionaries. The stated objectives of the revolutionaries did not go beyond the normal prescriptions dispensed by earlier reform movements in the Americas: the restoration of the Constitution of 1940 and the electoral code of 1943, as well as land reform.

After victory had been achieved, an agenda for the first phase of the revolution quickly unfolded. The revolutionaries, under the dynamic leadership of Fidel Castro, made effective use of propaganda, police powers, and targeted executions to stamp their authority on the country. Next, priority was given to securing the social and economic base of the revolution. Through the confiscation of large estates, land was available to facilitate land reform, starting with the redistribution of land to peasant cooperatives. At the same time, the government launched quick-impact programs for rural housing, education, and medical services. These measures were directed at the root causes of rural discontent. Accordingly, they won over to the revolution a large cadre of loyal supporters. The leaders had calculated that the confiscation of estates and other properties would evoke an angry response from Washington. When that reaction came, it achieved a further objective of the leaders, that of identifying the United States as the oppressor and as the enemy of change and reform. The United States not only followed the script in that regard but, by sponsoring the CIA-inspired, ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, seemed comfortable with its portrayal as Enemy No. 1 of the revolution.

The United States then attempted to arraign Cuba before the Organization of American States as a danger to peace in the hemisphere. Fully understanding that direct military intervention would have run counter to the commitment it had earlier made at the same forum—to respect the sovereignty of member countries—and mindful that the scope of any military intervention could not be strictly controlled, the United States decided to impose economic sanctions on Cuba. At the time, the United States was by far Cuba's most important trading partner and the principal consumer of Cuba's goods and services. The deteriorating relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse when the U.S. Air Force revealed photographs that clearly indicated that missile bases had been erected in Cuba and that they were about to receive missiles from the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy imposed an embargo and made it clear that no offensive weapons would be allowed to enter that country. He further declared that missiles launched from Cuba against the United States would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union, calling for immediate and full retaliation by the United States.On October 28, Premier Khrushchev offered to stop work on the missile sites and to return the nuclear weapons to Russia. For an agonizingly long moment the world seemed to hover on the brink of a third world war, with both sides having the capacity to deploy nuclear weapons. Castro was evidently surprised and disappointed at this turn of events. The following month the Soviet first deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba to hold discussions with President Castro and attempt to smooth ruffled feathers. The truth is that Cuba was facing increased isolation, and with the loss of access to the American market, it was only the Soviet Union that had the economic capacity and the political will to come to Cuba's aid. Cuba's attempts to support revolutionary impulses in some Latin American countries had prompted the OAS in 1964 to indict her for aggression against Venezuela. Before the end of that year, all Latin American countries except Mexico had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Thus Russia assumed the role of Cuba's major trading partner, accounting for 45 percent of Cuba's foreign trade by the mid-1960s, and with China accounting for 10 percent.

What followed in the 1970s was a shift in emphasis and direction, away from the more ambitious and idealistic agenda of the earlier years and toward a more pragmatic response to the important challenges faced by the country. Between the start of the revolution and 1978 there was a complete change in the direction and nature of Cuban trade. The focus had to be on safeguarding the gains of the revolution and ensuring its survival and eventual success. In 1959, 98.6 percent of Cuba's total trade had been with market economies, and of that, 68.7 percent had been with the United States. By 1978, 82.3 percent of Cuba's trade was with the Soviet bloc and of that, 69 percent was with the Soviet Union. This shift was accompanied by growing trade deficits and increasing dependence on Soviet price supports, especially for sugar and oil.

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Intra-Caribbean Relations

In the 1960s and '70s, the governments of the newly independent states in the Caribbean explored opportunities for attracting investment and reducing their overreliance on agriculture by accelerating the pace of development and moving toward a more diversified economic base, via tourism and others services, all in response to the urgent need to grow the economy, create jobs, and reduce high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Strong emphasis on human resource development had been evident even before the era of independence, with heavy investments in education, health, and other social services.

Fully aware that the movement of Britain into the European Common Market made it all the more urgent to reduce the overall dependence on protected markets for their exports and move toward a higher degree of self-reliance, the leading countries created the Caribbean Free Trade Association in 1967. This was followed by the establishment of the Caribbean Development Bank in 1969. By 1973 the same countries, recognizing that they needed to speed up the process of regional integration positioning order to secure continued access to the European market and other trading blocs, formed the Caribbean Common Market.

These newly independent small states, traditionally tied politically and economically to Europe, now assumed responsibility not just for internal affairs but external relations—including trade, foreign policy, and national security—and thus had to reorient their thinking on a wide range of issues. High on the agenda was the need to function as Caribbean-American states. They became full members of the OAS and of the Inter-American Development Bank. Politically, these countries had come of age when the influence and interest of the U.S. in the Caribbean was at its zenith. After independence the governments of these small states had to deal urgently with the expectations of their people: economic growth, an alleviation of social ills, and an improvement in the standard of living.

The early phase of the revolution stirred interest and evoked sympathy and support among many people who thought that Cubans deserved a break from the caudillo-style leadership of the Batistas of the Caribbean and Latin America. Notwithstanding the OAS's call for members to boycott Cuba and to break off diplomatic ties, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados maintained relations with Cuba when they joined the OAS. As the story unfolded, much of the glamour and romance of the early days of the revolution was replaced by the realization that, even for the largest country in the region, overcoming the condition of dependency was not easy.

Of immediate concern to Caribbean countries was the question of security, especially for the newer states that had opted not to follow the examples of older states and invest scarce resources in building up a large defense force. When, in the seventies, a series of incidents occurred concerning Cuban military personnel and aircraft, the countries directly involved sought to interest other states in taking steps to guard against the possibility of being unwittingly drawn into an international conflict, a contingency that might arise if they allowed their air space, for example, to be used for the deployment of military personnel or matériel in transit to a war zone.

Then in Grenada in 1979, the New Jewel Movement, led by Maurice Bishop in concert with the Defence Force, overthrew the elected government of Eric Gairy, a veteran politician who stood accused by his opponents of serious abuse of state power. It was not long before the de facto Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, announced that a contingent of Cuban personnel would be arriving in Grenada to build a new modern airport. Four years later, Bishop was himself overthrown and murdered by his former colleagues, who took control of the governments of some countries in the Eastern Caribbean and agreed to support and facilitate a U.S. military operation in Grenada. This signaled the start of a new chapter in intra-Caribbean relations and U.S.-Caribbean relations.

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Knight, Franklin W. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Parry, J. H. , P. M. Sherlock, and Anthony Maingot. A Short History of the West Indies, 4th ed. London: MacMillan Caribbean, 1987.

Langley, Lester D. The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Kurlansky, Mark. A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1992.

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