The Caribbean Sea is the geographic center of the American continents. It consists of 31 countries on islands and coastal areas of the American continents. The population lives in a region of great topographic, geologic and geomorphologic diversity. In addition to these characteristics, the Caribbean is exposed to hurricanes, seismic activity, volcanic activity, long periods of rain and drought. These physical variations have led to the heterogeneity of its pre-Columbian, modern and contemporary cultures.
The Caribbean continental region consists of the coastal areas of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama to the west and the northern coasts of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname to the south. The islands of Cuba, the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas are situated to the north of the Caribbean Sea and the islands of Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Barbuda, Bonaire, Dominica, Grenada, Guadalupe, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Barts, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago are part of the western Caribbean island region. This arc of islands defines the northern and western limits of the Caribbean Sea.
The Lesser Antilles, as the islands on the western edge of the Caribbean are commonly called, include the largest number of countries in the region. They consist of 58 islands and small archipelagos that make up 19 countries or dependencies of other countries.
In the interior of the region are the islands of Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Curacao, Margarita, Utila, Barbareta, Guanaja, Providencia, San Andres, Maíz, Saba and St. Eustatius. The Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and Barbados are not touched by the Caribbean Sea, but they are considered part of the Caribbean Antilles because they share common cultural and physical elements. Many historians and geographers also include Guyana (former British Guyana), French Guiana and Suriname (former Dutch Guyana) as part of the Caribbean region, due to their ethic and racial makeup and historical connections to the Lesser Antilles. The collection of all of these countries makes up the Greater Caribbean. It covers 7,885,010 square kilometers, or 39% of all of the Americas.
The heterogeneity of the Greater Caribbean region is the result of three main factors: the legacy of the indigenous cultures, the local physical geography and the impact of European colonization. These characteristics have generated a cultural mosaic that goes beyond the political borders of the nations that make up the region. Each country, in turn, has its own sub-regional characteristics that lead to greater cultural diversification. Countries with large territorial expanses, such as those in Central America and along the northern coast of South America, contain a greater variety of ethnic and racial diversity, while the smaller countries, mostly islands, have less variation within them.
Each country, however, has its own characteristics. Language and religion are fundamental elements in Caribbean human geography. Historically, both components have had the ability to unify and divide the region culturally. Spanish rule made the region part of Hispanic America while conversion to Catholicism is part of Latin America. The Spanish language and the Catholic religion are dominant in both the Antillean and continental Caribbean. English is spoken in the Lesser Antilles (western Caribbean), Guyana and Belize and French is spoken in the former French colony of Haiti and in the current overseas departments of France: French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe. The Catholic Church is dominant in the three regions. There are also dozens of dialects and languages, along with local religions, that reflect the cultural exchanges that have occurred over the past 500 years.
All of the countries, except the Bahamas and northern Mexico, are located within the northern tropical region, between the Equator (0 degrees latitude) and the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north). This means that most of the region receives a lot of solar energy throughout the year. This energy translates into higher temperatures and abundant precipitation, which leads to greater biodiversity. The climate and topographical variations have led to the natural production of raw materials, which have been economically exploited. Minerals such as gold, silver and copper attracted European countries to the region.
Within a broader geographic framework, the Caribbean is an important region for global maritime traffic, at the same time that it is an attractive market. “The Mediterranean of the New World” is important for the maritime movement of goods between the Americas and other continents. This geopolitical characteristic was fundamental in the formation of the Spanish empire for more than 400 years. The Caribbean Sea was on the main maritime route from the European ports to western Africa and the Caribbean. This route reflected the natural course of the winds from the northern Atlantic Ocean. Once the Spanish ships arrived in Santo Domingo or San Juan, they proceeded to the ports in Central America and the northern part of South America. Within this framework of European trade, the Greater Antilles served as an important base for defending this transportation network. Additionally, they served as center of production for equipment and perishable products for the crews in transit.
The convenient location and economic potential of the region led to many internal and external military confrontations. The attacks by Sir George Clifford (Earl of Cumberland), Sir Francis Drake, Jacques de Sores, Balduino Henrico, Sir Ralph Abercromby, Bartholomew Roberts, and Henry Morgan on various Caribbean ports during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, along with the attempts by Napoleon Bonaparte from France, John Adams from the United States and Simon Bolivar from South America in the 19th century, and finally, the obvious interventions by Germany, Britain, Denmark, Holland, Russia and the United States in the 20th century, are some examples of the intensity of the struggles to rule the region.
Many of these countries have left their political mark on the Caribbean region. Today, many Caribbean countries are politically related as colonies, overseas departments or integrated units to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and the United States of America.
Many of the struggles that dominated the planet during the “Cold War” period also affected the Caribbean. The existence of socialist economic systems in Cuba, Venezuela and for a short time in Nicaragua and Grenada challenged the capitalist system that has ruled most of the region’s countries. These elements are part of the complexity and sensibility of the region’s economic and political affairs.
Most of the countries in the region gained their independence during the 19th century. Many of these armed struggles gained popular support because of the precarious economic conditions in the colonies and the promise of more balanced economic development and greater social justice. After obtaining independence, many countries were not able to improve those conditions and new internal conflicts arose, resulting in military coups and revolutions. These internal struggles were characterized by the involvement of external elements unrelated to national interests.
Beyond governmental corruption, unequal distribution of wealth and ongoing militarism, one of the major problems many Caribbean republics have faced is land ownership. Proportionately, a few families own large amounts of land while the vast majority of the population does not own land. This imbalance has been the basis for pro-independence struggles and armed conflict between powerful interests and the marginalized population.
These conditions have established an informal infrastructure throughout the region. The informal economy, also called the “underground” or “buhonería” economy in some locations, has been the response by millions of Caribbean people to the continuous economic, political and social crises that have affected the region. This system, which is mainly one of subsistence, has been consolidated over the years, making it difficult today to establish an exact estimate of its reach in the region. Examples are the currency flows, the production and transportation of illegal drugs, retail bartering, money laundering and tax evasion by many local and foreign corporations in the region.
One of the main challenges facing the Caribbean is the potential impact of global warming. Increased sea levels represent a threat to existing economic, social and urban structures. In the Antilles, the majority of the population lives near the coasts and many of the activities that support the local economies depend on Caribbean shore areas. Beaches, ports, hotels, diving and fishing areas, docks, tourism waterfront areas, and many other industries could be directly affected in the coming decades. All of the region’s countries should begin to adopt measures to mitigate the effects of coastal transformation, changes in temperatures (particularly the comfort index for tourism activities), effects on local flora and fauna and commercial agriculture, and loss of urban space. Key cities such as Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince, Panama City, San Juan, Kingston, Kingstown, Roadtown, Charlotte Amalie, Basse-Terre, Roseau, Fort-de-France, St. John, St. George, Georgetown and Bridgetown will be significantly affected by the changes generated by global warming. These cities represent 50% of the Caribbean capitals.
Despite the negative elements that have affected the human geography and history of the Caribbean, the region’s future is promising. The diversity of raw materials (renewable and non-renewable), modernization of productive infrastructure, natural accessibility in relation to major global markets, the maturity of most political systems and their connections with major growth areas, not only in the Americas but also in Europe and Asia, are elements that have begun to reconfigure social and economic structures in all of the Caribbean countries.
In the measure that economic conditions improve through regional cooperation treaties and that policies for sustainable and balanced development are adopted, the region will become a vital part of North America and an important producer and consumer. Projections for economic improvement, along with population growth rates point to this possibility in the near future.
Author: Carlos Guilbe
Published: December 16, 2011.
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