There is no single Caribbean culture. To begin with, there are various Caribbean cultures. Referring to the Caribbean cultural heritage in a singular manner implies denial, though perhaps unintentional, of the diversity and heterogeneity of this part of the world. By analyzing the thousands of documentary, oral, pictorial and written sources, this variety, sometimes elaborate, leaps to mind without delay. This does not mean that certain general characteristics of the region, its peoples, its geography and its ways of working and thinking cannot be identified. However, outlining certain characteristics should not lead to the idea that there is a general culture in the region or, much less, that it can be seen as homogenous in nature. For all of these reasons, writing an overview of the Caribbean culture leads to certain difficulties that cannot be avoided.

The concept of culture has been defined in various ways and therefore has been the subject of many theoretical debates. On one hand, it can be said that culture refers to all that is done and thought in a given context. This definition is still too simple, however, to explain or shed light on the concrete realities of a location. On the other hand, defining the concept in a more specific way can be problematic because it may require us to identify as “cultures” only those whose expressions fall within the given conceptualization of culture. Thus it is probably better to avoid trying to reach definitive and comprehensive conclusions on the issue. What is certainly relevant, as mentioned above, is to list some of the most significant of the many cultural expressions that exist in the Caribbean.

Similarly, there are difficulties with the definition of what is known as the Caribbean. Since the 15th century, the Caribbean has been a zone of economic exploitation: first in relation to mining activity and later with agriculture. In this sense, the region was a source of enrichment through the extraction of precious metals and the production of commodities such as sugar, cotton and coffee, among many others. Eventually, in the 20th century, the agricultural economy would shift to industrial. The Caribbean came to be thought of strategically as a region where subsidiaries of international firms would locate factories to produce, at relatively low costs, a range of consumer goods for sale in both the Caribbean and other parts of the world. At the same time, other parts of the Caribbean have become important for petroleum production. Such is the case with Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, among others. For these reasons, the Caribbean has been a strategic zone on the economic level, as well as the military level.

Since the 16th century, when the Spanish crown established regular voyages of its fleet and galleons — along with ships carrying gold, sliver and merchandise to Spain from the Caribbean — the region began to be seen as one that had to be protected from possible enemy attacks. Beginning in that era, the enemies of Spain — such as Britain — awarded Letters of Marque to persons, giving them the right to sack Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, on land or at sea. The Caribbean islands, especially those closest to the Atlantic, took on great importance in terms of the defense and protection of Spanish possessions. Beginning in the 16th century, they began building fortifications to provide protection. These fortifications, known as “morros,” were strongly armed permanent military units. The Caribbean was very coveted, and the powers that had possessions there felt they had to protect what they had conquered.

Eventually, with the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States began efforts to control the region, declaring the famous phrase, “America for Americans.” The region became one with a strategic nature in the race to consolidate U.S. control over the entire Western Hemisphere and, above all, eliminate the threats of the European countries that wanted to establish control in that part of the world. The 19th century was witness to this process and the Spanish-American War was the key point in the power struggle over the territories of the Caribbean among the powers of the era. After the triumph by the United States in the war, the Caribbean Sea became, basically, the American Mediterranean.

Since 1898, the region has been directly and indirectly controlled by the United States. The gradual establishment of several military bases throughout the region was evidence, in part of its intentions.

In 1945, with the end of World War II, the Caribbean entered the struggle known as the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the 1960s, the so-called Missile Crisis made the Caribbean a notorious zone of nuclear tension when Soviet nuclear missiles were placed in Cuba and aimed at Washington. The Caribbean, once again, was a site of struggle and confrontation between larger powers. The region became a nuclear stage. The Caribbean also became a strategic launch point for missiles in case a war of catastrophic proportions broke out. In the measure that the Cold War no longer mattered, beginning in 1990, the region gradually began to lose its strategic military importance.

The Caribbean has also been defined in various ways as a geographic region over the course of at least five centuries. The definitions of what comprises the Caribbean came from, and continue to come from, the political and economic power centers of Europe and the United States. In this sense, since the 15th century, the Caribbean consists — in the minds of Europeans — of a group of islands located in what is known today as the Caribbean Sea. Those islands, also known as the West Indies — to differentiate them from the East Indies — eventually were divided into two principal groups. Some preferred to call these groups the Windward and Leeward Islands. Others opted simply to call them the Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles.

From this perspective, the primary identity given to the territories of the Caribbean was related to their condition as islands and their roles in economic production. Many of these islands were thought of as sites in which plantation economies would flourish and generate enormous profits for many investors in Europe. Although it was not the only product, sugar became the most important and profitable commodity extracted from the land. For a long time, the islands of the Caribbean were considered the sugar islands, although cotton, coffee and ginger were also grown there, among other agricultural products. Curiously, the production of sugar would cause misery for millions of people who were tied to the industry in the Caribbean. To have to depend economically on a single product was part of the colonial legacy in many territories, and after they obtained independence, they had no choice but to continue with the same economic strategies until they were exhausted.

If the presence of plantation economies established the central identity of the area geographically to be considered as the Caribbean, it implied that eventually a series of sites, although they were not islands, would have to be included in the Caribbean category because they conformed to those conditions. Thus, anywhere that the plantation economy profile appeared, the Caribbean distinction could be applied. Territories such as the northeastern part of Brazil, part of the southern United States, the eastern part of Central America and the northern part of South America fell easily within that classification. It must be remembered, however, that there is nothing essentially Caribbean. The geographic distinctions that have been mentioned are arbitrary and historical. Men and women have created these classifications, which leads us to the fact that the redefinition of what comprises the Caribbean is not complete, in light of the changes in both the region and the rest of the world.

The Caribbean is much more than plantations, however. Of this there is no doubt. But it would be unwise to ignore the central importance that the plantation economies had as “breeding grounds” for many of the characteristics that later became known as Caribbean. Although not everyone who arrived and continues to arrive in the Caribbean from the 15th century to the 21st century worked directly on a plantation, it is undeniable that, indirectly, the plantations served as magnets that attracted millions of people who, with their lives and survival, imbued the region with specific cultural and historical qualities. Those qualities that give life and presence to these territories in the eyes of the rest of the world were precisely the roles of producers of commodities. That is not to justify the economic exploitation, slavery as a means of production, or colonization. However, although not all was agreeable, the combination of everything produced rich and heterogeneous formations.

The cruelty of the masters, the slaves’ long and hard work, their imprisonment in barracks, the poverty of daily life, the lack of adequate food, the yearning to be something else, the terrible working conditions of the free workers, the institutionalized racism of the colonies, the many rebellions, the power monopoly in the territories, the oligarchies, the large land holdings, the lack of social mobility, the impoverishment of the worker as a result of the enrichment of the plantation owner, the bipolarity of social opportunity, and the systematic marginalization and repression, among other aspects, were the basis for the lives of people who built the region into their own place in the world.

The admirable responses of millions of people to all of the above served as the stimulus for defining and distinguishing the Caribbean. Those responses were used as tools for preserving life in such difficult circumstances. They had to take advantage of everything that was available because, to a certain extent, they had to create cultural forms and ways of life where there were few points of reference. Although the region was populated before the arrival of the Europeans, what is known today as the Caribbean would not have been possible with just the cultural influences of the Tainos, for example. Without resorting to absolutisms, the Caribbean had to start from its own ground zero. It had to create all that at one time did not exist. That task fell on many human beings and was the motivating force in the gestation of a multi-cultural and inter-cultural zone like that of the Caribbean.

That aforementioned motivating force, the plantation, was the magnet that drew to its own center a multiplicity of populations, knowledge, religious conceptions, governmental structures, social hierarchies, gender roles, foods, ways of cooking, ways of dancing, etc. All that, and more that has not been mentioned, came with processes of syncretism that appeared to be the main characteristic of formation in a geographic area where everything had to be rewritten anew. That is why some understand the cultures or cultural configurations of the Caribbean as “supersyncretistic” formations. The process of syncretism — which took place in the Caribbean — is defined as the convergence and mix of different elements to give way to the creation of new cultural forms. The syncretization of those elements, which were syncretistic in themselves, is what is alluded to by “supersyncretistic.”

This interplay or interaction of syncretistic forms in the Caribbean was the cause, for example, of the Africanization of the cultures that took structure in the region. Africanization, intentional or unintentional, was the process of the contributions made by millions of Africans. Taste, rhythm, and movement were some of the aspects in which Africanization would be effective. At the same time, this interplay made innumerable contributions from dissimilar places, but in the region they became common starting points.

In the Caribbean, in addition to “supersyncretism,” two other cultural dynamics were taking shape: resistance and chaos. The cultural dynamic of resistance was evident at the same time that it was also crystal clear that the majority of the inhabitants of the region were subject to social and mental structures and economic processes that were a function of the physical, moral and economic domination exercised by the few.

The various Caribbean colonial societies were stages for the display of the technologies of power. Among these were the infamous slave codes that dictated all of the obligations and directives about their behavior in society and the punishments to which they would be subjected if they violated any of the moral and ethical stipulations. All inhabitants had some kind of identity before the power structure. Those identities, curiously imposed from the “higher” social level, appeared to be like armor that nobody could take away. Everything appeared to be arranged in such a way that it could not be changed. It was difficult, however, to keep things that way. The exercise of power, at all levels, met challenges in great quantity and quality. Those challenges, coming from many sectors, were formidable ingredients for generating cultural forms in which disobedience and defiance would have famed roles.

This is not to say that every Caribbean is defiant in a totally conscious way. The point is that the diverse cultures that coexist in the Caribbean even today had resistance, disobedience and defiance as their most important ingredients. If not for these three aspects, it would not be possible to talk about voodoo in Haiti and in New Orleans, or the bomba in Puerto Rico, calypso in Trinidad and Costa Rica, reggae in Jamaica, or the poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite in Barbados, the literary works of Derek Walcott, Juan Antonio Corretjer and Reinaldo Arenas, just to mention a few. For all of the above to develop, the rhythmic, tonal, aesthetic, dogmatic and formal impositions that came from Europe and were systematically imposed over the centuries on many human beings had to be disobeyed.

In the Caribbean of today, reggaeton is an example of the above. In the case of Puerto Rico, this kind of music, on many occasions, is arbitrarily related to the drug trade, murders, fighting, firearms, arrogance and many other disagreeable characteristics. At the same time, the rhythmic base of this music, its beat, is strident, shrill and incautiously metallic to many. The forms of dancing to this kind of music have also been the subjects of moral criticisms. All of the above is mentioned because it is undeniable that both the music and its lyrics, as well as the moves of the perreo dance, are the cultural results of attitudes of resistance and defiance at the social level.

The other dynamic that has served as distinctive in the formation of cultural configurations in the Caribbean up to current times is chaos. Generally, the word refers to disorder. The use of the word, either in Spanish and in English, is not commonly considered or analyzed beginning with its conditions and possibilities. In other words, in most cases in which the word is used, it automatically refers to a generalized disorder, and for that reason, its use carries a stigmatization of that which is considered chaotic. Chaos, however, does not simply mean pure disorder. The word also alludes to a lack of a desired order. A group of people who live in a territory in which there are social forms that are not desirable to them may assert that chaos reigns in such a setting. But, as can easily be seen, for those people the chaos addresses the absence of all that would be agreeable and desirable.

On the other hand, once the point above has been clarified and therefore we have eliminated the idea that the Caribbean is chaotic because it is not possible to establish lasting order there, then it is worthwhile to historically analyze the measure in which chaos can be seen as a condition and possibility for analysis of the cultures of the region.

Beginning in the 15th century, the Caribbean was a region highly coveted by various European powers. The first to establish itself in the region was the Spanish crown. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain had or tried to exercise exclusive power over the region.

In the 17th century, England, which for many years had been eager to control territory in the Caribbean, noted that many of the lands that Spain claimed were not being “duly” populated by subjects of that crown. That was reason enough for England, using the contrivance of effective occupation, to put the Spanish crown in a predicament by letting it know that if it did not occupy those territories, they could be populated with subjects of the English crown. Spain, not being able to respond to the population issue, had to fight against the occupation of territories by the English. From that point on, the Caribbean would also become an object of desire by the French crown and other European powers of the era. In the measure that various colonial systems were organized and consolidated, it became ever more evident that the Caribbean colonies were expected to function based on the wishes of the European countries that dominated them. In the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert in France elaborated an entire series of rules establishing the roles the colonies should play in accordance with the wishes of the European powers.

Beginning in the 15th century, but more strongly so in the 17th century, the Caribbean formally entered a relationship of center and periphery with Western Europe. In other words, the Caribbean had to navigate around a command center that was many miles away. Each European power forced its colonies to revolve around it (the central power). This led territories dominated by distant powers to create and consolidate inter-alliances. The English colonies were more aware of developments in London, Bristol or Liverpool that those that occurred in a territory geographically close by. The same occurred in other colonies. In general terms, facing terrible living conditions and unable to satisfy the needs of the local classes, the Caribbean colonies became satellites that revolved around a nucleus: Western Europe. Thus many European cities became their centers. The interactions between territories in the Caribbean that belonged to distant powers did not figure prominently in the thinking or the plans of those who dominated the region.

One of the ways in which the above was challenged was through the activities of the pirates, buccaneers and filibusters. These sailors or smugglers were the ones whose activity put the colonies that did not belong to the same power in contact with each other, although illegally. Contraband, the illegal commerce of merchandise, began to silently break the system of center and periphery that had been imposed on the region. Pirates, filibusters and buccaneers served as clandestine links between territories. All were in search of profits. The links were not the result of philanthropic or altruistic endeavors. However, the Caribbean had been thought of in the centers of economic and political power as based on vertical relationships (the Caribbean below and Europe above), but as a result of the pirates, filibusters and buccaneers, relationships began to form between the territories themselves in a horizontal fashion (English colonies-French colonies-Spanish colonies, etc.).

During the 19th century, thinkers arose in various Caribbean territories challenging the center and periphery relationship. Among the most notable were José Martí and Ramón Emeterio Betances. Betances, for example, with his famous phrase “The Antilles for the Antilleans,” worked for integration based on common interests among diverse Caribbean territories. Both for Betances as well as Martí, the unavoidable condition for realizing that goal was decolonization. Liberty had to be achieved to be able to negotiate and relate to each other in a sovereign manner.

Based on all of the above, the characterization of the chaotic in relation to the dynamic Caribbean cultures begins to make sense. Even up until today, the region has seen various migrations from one place to others, such as, for example, Haitians to the Dominican Republic, Dominicans to Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans to parts of the southern United States, Cubans to Miami and to Puerto Rico, etc. These movements of people between territories have increased in the measure that living conditions have become more difficult in the migrants’ home countries. Conditions have not only made migrations more intense, but have made them more common.

The Caribbean continues relating to the Caribbean. Instead of responding to centrifugal forces (away from the center) all the time, the various locations in the region respond to centripetal forces (toward the center). The Caribbean’s central reference is the Caribbean. As this dynamic, in which there is no center or borders or periphery, grows in intensity, the less the region can be considered at the margins of the order desired by the centers of power in the United States and Europe. It appears less vertical and acts more horizontal. From this springs the richly chaotic and dynamic cultures of the region. If from the mixture of salsa and reggaeton arises salsaton, it is possible that the paradigms and models will be created that begin with the intention of looking within the region in search of possibilities, and not just beyond the region. The Caribbean remains open to the rest of the world, but it becomes chaotic when culturally it does not depend on the rest of the world, and much less on the former and current powers, for its diverse and, at the same time, specific ways of being.

Author: Dr. José Alberto Cabán Torres
Published: December 27, 2011.

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