The Caribbean is one of the most politically complex and varied regions of the world, which makes it difficult to put together a synthesis of the characteristics and features shared by the various countries that make up the region. The Caribbean is defined as the collection of islands located between the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Orinoco River (including the archipelagos of the Bahamas, the Dutch islands off the coast of Venezuela, and the continental territories of Belize, Guyana and Suriname). This group of islands and territories includes purely sovereign countries, partially sovereign (Aruba, Curacao), those with important degrees of autonomy (Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands) and provinces of extra-regional countries (Martinique, Guadalupe). The territorial and population sizes also show significant variation, ranging from microstates, such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to small countries such as Cuba, and others of larger size but with small populations, such as Guyana or Suriname.

The Caribbean includes a variety of state organizations, from presidential republics (the Dominican Republic, Guyana), semi-presidential (Haiti), parliamentary systems (Barbados, Jamaica), and a socialist system (Cuba). In terms of social and civil liberties, based on international indices, the Caribbean has some of the most free and open societies in the world, such as Barbados and Antigua; others that are partially free and open, such as Haiti; and others that are neither open nor free, such as Cuba. At the same time, according to the United Nations classifications, the Caribbean includes societies with high human development indices (Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas) comparable to the developed nations, while it also has one of the countries with the lowest human development (Haiti) in the world, and others where the human development agenda faces important challenges (Guyana, Belize).

This variety of characteristics makes it difficult to do a rigorous comparative analysis of the political processes in the region (such as democratization or the relationship between the state and labor movements) because the variables at play in any political circumstance tend to be specific to the case or country in question. Similarly, it is difficult to generalize and apply to the region the circumstances or experiences of specific countries (for example, the high level of voter participation in presidential elections in the republics of the region). This observation could seem a little strange, because in many political analyses and studies the Caribbean is described as a single region and there is a tendency to generalize about its behavior (especially on economic issues). Even when there appears to be, at first glance, enough common elements to simplify the task of generalization, the lesson of this essay is that the Caribbean is, effectively, a region of important socio-political contrasts that show the different political directions the countries have taken.

On the basis of these common elements, it is possible to talk about some issues, threads and areas that are fundamental for understanding the political convergence and divergence of the countries in the Caribbean region.

The relatively small size of all of the Caribbean countries is a determining factor in the political development, structure and behavior of many of the Caribbean governments. Unlike continental Latin American countries, where the evolution of the state occurred in large part because of the need to create a political structure to allow extraction of resources and to manage vast territories, in the Caribbean this was not a fundamental characteristic of the state. From the beginning, the Caribbean state served as an administrator and referee for productive relationships, whether for the Spanish or French mercantile systems or the British and Dutch trade companies. In this sense, the essential problem of the Caribbean state was never its inability to manage a territory or “penetrate” society through its authority or monopolization of the use of force. On the contrary, the relative closeness of the state to the Caribbean societies has meant that, throughout its history, the state has played a more direct role in the economic and social development of the Caribbean countries than in Latin America or North America. This does not imply, however, that it was a state with advanced administrative ability, and this is one of the most important contradictions in Caribbean politics. One of the most important inequalities in terms of governance in the Caribbean has to do with the irregular quality of the institutions in the region, as we will see later.

The small size of the Caribbean countries and their closeness to important sources of strategic natural resources have led them to become countries with open economies, closely tied to the international economy and the world centers of political and economic power. Globalization is a foundational reality in the Caribbean, not a recent historical fact. This has had various implications for the region’s political and economic development. In a domestic sense, the extreme dependence on international trade for economic viability and survival means that the Caribbean did not have import substitution projects that would support development of a local industrial sector, except in limited cases — such as Trinidad and Tobago and pre-revolutionary Cuba — and even then there weenire important exceptions and determining factors (apart from certain important variables such as the colonial presence in the English-speaking Caribbean until the 1970s). The local business class has typically come from the agricultural and service sectors, both closely linked to transnational entities. Therefore, the Caribbean states have had important limitations when it came to making industrial policy (an area of great importance in the economic success of developing countries in Asia and Latin America, not to mention some of the advanced countries of Europe and Asia). Similarly, the ability to generate resources through taxation, considered a fundamental element for the development of a strong state with a high level of administrative ability, has also been quite limited, especially in the Spanish and French Caribbean.

In other words, the Caribbean is a region of strong leaders, but weak states. The role of the leader is an important historical characteristic in the political development of the Caribbean, from the struggles for independence in Haiti and Cuba to the revolutionary projects in Grenada and Cuba. In this sense, the strength of the Caribbean political leadership is linked to one or both of the following phenomena that occur in the region: the absolute centrality of the country’s president or executive figure in designing or implementing the policies or functioning of the state; and the ability to organize the popular masses or coalitions in search of political or economic objectives. The former has to do with the relative strength of the executive branch in comparison to the legislative branch in proposing public policy, introducing issues and setting the agenda. Frequently, the leader resorts to a presidential decree (Dominican Republic), executive order (Puerto Rico), dissolution of Parliament and new elections (Trinidad) and other methods of exercising executive prerogatives in contrast to the legislative branch. In the case of Cuba, a socialist dictatorship that does not allow political opposition in the Congress, the role of Executive is even more dominant in formulating and exercising public policy. What is evident in all of these cases is the relative weakness of the legislative branch, which in principle is most directly representative of the population in democratic systems, in most of the Caribbean.

In terms of popular mobilization, the Caribbean, throughout its history, has experienced important movements based mainly on nationalist principles, including the struggles for independence in the English-speaking Caribbean in the first half of the 20th century, the Cuban Revolution (a case of Caribbean hypernationalism), the Lavalas Movement of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti and the New Jewel Movement of Maurice Bishop in Grenada. In the particular case of the English-speaking Caribbean, the popular political movements have typically grown out of unions or labor organizations, in large part because of the political origins of these territories, which were organized from the beginning on the basis of mining and plantations to produce sugar, under a capitalist structure. In all of these cases, these movements have relied on important leaders who have become emblematic figures in national politics in their countries for many years, even after the triumph (or failure) of the popular movements.

This strength of the executive has various consequences for the political development of the Caribbean: the persistence of the patronage system for developing relationships between the political class and the citizenry (instead of a pluralistic structure with equal rights and responsibilities for all); the establishment of corruption in much of the region (with important exceptions, such as Barbados and St. Lucia); and the lack of institutionalization and continuity in public policy, especially when there are changes in the government after the general elections.

All of this has consequences for the quality of the democracy in the region. Most of the democratic countries in the Caribbean have a high rate of voter participation (even in countries where voting is not obligatory), but the representative natures of the governments, as well as their levels of responsibility and transparency (often referred to in terms of accountability) continue to be issues. These issues represent a great challenge for various Caribbean governments where the state’s ability to articulate public policies in response to important challenges such as public safety (Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Kitts, the Dominican Republic), the economic crisis (Puerto Rico, Grenada) and reconstruction after natural disasters (Haiti) have been debated and questioned. Once again, the view of the Caribbean varies, depending on the country in question. The majority of the countries in the English-speaking Caribbean have relatively low levels of corruption, based on the ratings by International Transparency, especially in comparison to the other countries in the region, as well as to those around the world with similar levels of economic development. At the same time, there are important exceptions on this count, such as Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana. The political systems in the Dutch and English Caribbean tend to be considered more “open” in terms of civil liberties and transparency, again with important exceptions, while the governments in the Spanish and French Caribbean tend to have a worse performance on those measures. The exception, in terms of corruption and civil liberties, is Puerto Rico: in comparison to the rest of the hemisphere and to countries of similar economic development, it receives high ratings for its political performance in these areas.

Constitutionalism and Political Parties

The Caribbean has a variety of state structures that can be classified into three main types. The first is the republican system, in which the executive leader is a president who is elected by direct vote with a legislature, or parliament, elected separately and an independent (at least nominally) judiciary. Such is the case in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, but also in non-independent territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are also parliamentary systems with periodic elections for parliament, with the leader of the majority party (in some cases, in the lower house) designated as prime minister. Almost all of the parliamentary systems in the Caribbean are part of the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom exercising the functions of chief of state. The exceptions are the Dutch territories, which follow a parliamentary system, sometimes as municipalities of the kingdom (Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius), and others as countries within the kingdom (Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten). A third group consists of semi-presidential systems, with an elected president and a prime minister who forms the government (cabinet). This is the case in Haiti and the French-speaking Caribbean territories (Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Martin and the smaller islands). The Republic of Cuba is a socialist presidential system in which only one political party exists (and with elections that are considered neither free nor open) and no separation of powers.

Constitutional revisions and changes have surged throughout the Caribbean in recent years. In large measure, this is due to the problems with the effectiveness of public governance and representation of the electorate, as described above. In other words, they are part of the efforts to reform the state, although in cases such as those of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, they also address problems of political stability and the strength of institutions, as also seen earlier (the two countries share the dubious honor of having had the greatest number of constitutions in Latin America). The Dominican Republic inaugurated a new constitution in 2010, after a complicated and controversial process of negotiation and work by a Constituent Assembly. The new document, while bringing about positive changes in areas such as the judiciary and the system of checks and balances on power, is considered to be extremely conservative in the sphere of social rights.

The large majority of the political systems in the Caribbean, with the important exceptions of Cuba, Haiti and Trinidad, are strongly bipartisan in nature. The debates and political conflicts take place between two main parties, both national in nature. The ideological distance between political parties in the Caribbean, as in other two-party democracies, has become narrower since the end of the Cold War. The traditional party of the left, for example, rarely proposes the elimination of the capitalist system, as has been the case in Guyana, Grenada and Jamaica. Except for Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, the political parties in the Caribbean do not define their positions, organic structure or membership on the basis of ethnicity. None in the region base those elements on geography, either. Perhaps this contributes to the characteristic stability of the Caribbean party systems in recent decades, even while differences and conflicts among factions within the parties have reached a peak.

International Relations

Its small size and openness have meant that the Caribbean, like other economies of the same size and composition, is very vulnerable to international economic fluctuations, with various kinds of consequences for the region. The main one is the persistence of the issue of regional integration. Since the Treaty of Chaguaramas in 1973, Caribbean countries, through CARICOM (the Caribbean Community), have built an economic and judicial entity that has achieved levels perhaps unmatched by any other bloc in Latin America. In 1980, the group of the smallest countries within CARICOM formed the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), and, as part of this project, they are looking to create a common currency.

CARICOM is currently in the process of building a single economy and market (CSME), a project that consists of creating a single market for goods, services and labor. Despite similarities in the judicial and political frameworks of the countries in the group, intense negotiation has been necessary to move the project forward and to settle various important issues, such as asymmetry in the levels of development between the most advanced states (such as Barbados) and those that are less developed and relatively poor (such as Guyana). These asymmetries create obstacles to approving regulatory frameworks, allowing the free movement of workers, and creating common policies for investment or services. The asymmetries have slowed the creation of the unified market such that some members of the group, such as the Bahamas, for example, have opted to remain outside the unified market system. Others, such as Haiti, simply do not have the political or economic ability to take on initiatives of this magnitude.

The difficulties in concluding the agreement for a CARICOM unified market reveal the tensions that exist between the efforts at regional integration and international cooperation with principles of sovereignty. Any effort at integration between independent countries requires some degree of limitation on the state’s individual prerogatives or its ability to act autonomously, which implies ceding part of its sovereignty. This issue has been one of the most persistent obstacles to regional integration and the functioning of the many international organizations that operate in the region. The large political movements in the Caribbean, from the struggles for independence in the English-speaking Caribbean to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and as recently as the efforts to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake of 2009, were built on the intellectual basis of respect for the sovereignty of these nations, an issue that continues to figure in the political imagination of the political leaders and organizations (parties, coalitions) in various countries in the region. This creates friction and conflict in international cooperation, international peacekeeping interventions (as in the case of Haiti) and in trade negotiations (such as the negotiation of an economic agreement between the European Union and CARIFORUM). It presents similar problems for efforts to construct any Caribbean integration project as each government, to make political capital, seeks to preserve its judicial or political prerogatives, thus undermining the project’s regionalist purposes.

Given its structural characteristics (geographic and economic), the Caribbean has important ties to the United States, which on many occasions have been important at key moments in national political development, especially in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The relationship with the United States is both an opportunity and a threat. The geographic and economic proximity of the United States allows the Caribbean to obtain trade preferences and investments that have been determining factors in the region’s economic development. At the same time, this proximity has led to important security problems, from military occupations and interventions by the United States on various occasions in the 20th century to the geo-strategic characteristics of the Cold War and, more recently, the threat of organized crime and drug trafficking.

In part because of these circumstances, but also because of its geo-political composition, the Caribbean has been called the “distant cousin” of Latin America. Some Caribbean countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Cuba, actively participate in international organisms and institutions created by the Latin American countries, and the Southern Cone countries are the leaders of the United Nations mission in Haiti. More recently, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda have become part of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) group, in which Cuba figures prominently. Guyana and Suriname are members of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). These cases are the exceptions that prove the rule, however. They point out the Caribbean’s relative isolation from its continental neighbors, a circumstance that has marked regional association trends in the Caribbean, and the tendency to protect sovereignty as a fundamental principle of the region’s international relations.


Author: José Raúl Perales
Published: June 13, 2012.

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