The Puerto Rico Online Encyclopedia (PROE) is an educational tool that provides reliable information on Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican experience, both on the island and in the United States. The Caribbean section enriches and complements this information about Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican people in relation to their geographic, social, historical and cultural Caribbeansurroundings, as well as showing the vast socio-cultural diversity and wealth of the region. It also seeks to correct the intraregional lack of communication caused by the linguistic fragmentation that rules in the region.

The Caribbean section is organized into a total of nine (9) thematic areas: Environment and GeographyArcheologyVisual ArtsCultureLiteratureMusicEconomicsPolitics and Society, and History. Each area has nine (9) overview essays, six (6) thematic essays, thirteen (13) specialized essays and thirteen (13) biographical essays, except for the content in the History section. Because of its complexity and importance, the History section requires greater size and thematic development. Six (6) thematic overview essays have been added to the History section to provide a broad view of the historical developments of the 16th through 20th centuries. Another twelve (12) thematic essays are included that are derived from the historical topics and processes that represent milestones in Caribbean history and are essential for fully understanding the content of the Caribbean section.

The Caribbean proves slippery and elusive in the face of any effort to define it concretely. Its complexity stands out despite the many efforts to define and come to grips with the Caribbean.Antonio Benítez Rojo of Cuba thought of the Caribbean as a zone dominated by rhythm, or, more precisely, the polyrhythmic nature of its aesthetic expressions, which give the Caribbean a character of cultural unity. Meanwhile, Sidney W. Mintz, one of the sharpest observers of the Caribbean, highlighted the importance of the structure and organization of the plantation as a point of convergence in the region. The Caribbean has also been defined by its geopolitical importance to the government of the United States after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and throughout the 20th century.

In the interest of capturing the multiple Caribbean experiences, the definition of the Caribbean that we propose is not ruled by geographic logic, which would limit us to those territories bordered by the Caribbean Sea, but instead is much broader, based mainly on the importance of the plantation as a socioeconomic mold. It is significant to note that the institutions tied to agricultural production and the social relationships that were derived from them would have a deciding influence, though not the only influence, on the supporting structure of the shared political, economic, social and cultural configurations throughout the region. The Caribbean experience took shape through thinking that was deeply affected by hierarchical power and social and racial beliefs. It should also be noted that these experiences were based on irregular and unguided social, economic and political developments in the time and place in which the shared elements of the region were experienced in different ways and uneven intensities.

The Caribbean we examine here is more than its pleasing territories and languages. It covers about 7,885,010 square kilometers or 39% of the territory of the Americas, with an estimated population of 286 million inhabitants. This includes the arc of islands from the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago (Cuba, Hispaniola [Dominican Republic and Haiti], Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Turks and Caicos, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia) and the continental countries of Belize, Guyana, French Guyana, Suriname and parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, which because of their historical and social development have similar experiences to those of the Caribbean. At the same time, it is essential to recognize the intense history of migration and socio-cultural exchange that developed within and beyond the region’s societies. In that sense, the definition also considers the Caribbean communities in the United States (New York, Miami, Orlando), Canada (Toronto, Montreal), Britain and Holland.

The Caribbean: Historic Legacy

Although the plantation was the common seed in the region’s historical evolution, it would be contrived to call it the unequivocally unifying element of the Caribbean. Despite its intrinsic diversity and fragmentation, however, the Caribbean displays common characteristics that help us understand the Caribbean experience, such as: (1) all of the territories were colonized by European powers; (2) in most of these, plantation economies or related systems were implemented; (3) slavery was instituted; (4) cultures of resistance arose; (5) and a historically unprecedented cultural syncretism developed. In one way or another, the articles presented here take a deeper look at each of these characteristics.

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Antilles unleashed one of the most intense chapters in modern history: the colonization, first of the Caribbean and then of all of the Americas. The Spanish monarchs were the pioneers in the colonization of the Caribbean, but they were not the only ones who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to take control of the small islands to the west. The empires of Britain, France, Holland and Denmark were also complicit in the colonial entanglements in the region that would become known as the Caribbean.

The colonial experience, in all its variety, is one of the most influential elements in the social, political and economic configurations of the Caribbean. It was the starting point and the organizational plan that provided the judicial and legal basis for creating the most important economic business for the development of capitalism in the world. The seizure of the Caribbean’s human and natural resources constituted, therefore, its historic beginning and served as the paradigm for creating and maintaining the political, social and economic institutions in which the Caribbean societies unfolded. From the very first settlements in Hispaniola, the vision of pillaging, depredation and theft by the European powers was expressed in the form of the encomienda, the first form of slavery in the Americas. The sharp observations by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas showed that “the cause for which so many died and so many Christian souls have been destroyed is only for the goal of gold and stuffing oneself with riches in a few days.” He also denounced the atrocities to which the indigenous people of the Antilles were subjected, which caused the destruction of the population just a few years after the conquest. Dominican historian Frank Moya Pons estimates that at the time of European arrival the population of the island of Hispaniola was between 400,000 and 600,000 people, while only 11,000 Tainos remained by 1517. The decline in population took on unexpected magnitude. The regime of slavery and exploitation spread its roots in the Americas by using the Caribbean as a trampoline to the richer territories in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. the Antilles were left behind in the Spanish empire’s organization in the Americas, with the exception of Cuba, which served as the official shipyard for the galleons that came to Havana from Mexico and Cartagena de Indias in transit to Spain. For 500 years, the Caribbean would become a territory exploited not just by Spain, but also by other European powers.

The lack of labor for gold mining led to a transformation in the economy to planting sugar cane for export. Demand for sugar had increased substantially (although not as much as it would a century later) and sugar from the Canary Islands, São Tomé and Madeira was not sufficient to meet European demand. The first sugar mills in the Spanish Antilles were built based on presses similar to those built on the islands mentioned above. By 1527, there were about 25 presses for producing sugar on Hispaniola. Puerto Rico had four sugar mills by 1548. Despite these early efforts, however, mainly on Hispaniola, sugar cane did not take off in the Spanish Antilles until after the triumph of the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century.

Colonialism was far from an identical experience throughout the region. The Spanish, French, British, Danish and Dutch colonies all implemented political institutions and regimes that, despite being anchored in usurping power, were different. During the early period, for example, the Spanish colonies served as a springboard for Spanish adventurers to other continental areas that were more productive and richer in minerals. Meanwhile, Britain and France maximized the profitability of their holdings by exploiting sugar production in their Caribbean colonies. The Dutch,in the meantime, played a key role in extending credit and trading slaves to meet the huge demand the producing islands required.

Spanish exclusivity in the Antilles was displaced by France, Britain and Holland, which saw the possibilities of growing wealth through production of sugar and other products. Barbados was the first British colony in the Caribbean where the systematic exploitation of arable land through a plantation system was implemented as a socio-economic model. This led to the transfer of huge sums of money to build mills with greater productive capacity and higher profitability. In search of wealth, and under the privileges granted by the colonial order, the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean flourished. The plantation socio-economic model was emulated in various parts of the Caribbean. It should be noted, however, that it was not the only model of exploitation, nor was it implemented the same in all territories. The plantation took on different nuances in each island or territory, depending on numerous factors, such as the natural and geographic features (size of land appropriate for growing cane, access to good ports, etc.) and the political and economic systems used by the different European powers. The colonial relationships, however, provided ideal judicial, ideological and economic structures for beginning and strengthening plantation economies throughout the Caribbean islands and the nearby territories that were subject to this regime. The plantation, as Moya Pons reminds us, helps us to understand why the Caribbean was so important to the world powers involved in the economic realm of agricultural exports. These territories were useful and valuable as long as they could be economically and humanly profited from. The plantation was the most profitable economic form of organization in the Caribbean. So while it’s true that not all of the Caribbean territories were dominated by plantations, in one measure or another they were tied to it.

The economic tentacles of European colonialism in the Caribbean involved social hierarchies that were indispensable for maintaining a social and political order. The social order to which the societies aspired, though it was not always achieved, established a patriarchal and socio-racial ideal that was capable of “harmoniously” organizing all segments of society in pursuit of greater social stability and financial profitability. The plantation economies, whether British, French, Dutch or Spanish, were also slave societies that were strictly divided. The production of sugar required huge numbers of people for cutting cane and processing sugar.

For some 350 years, African slavery predominated as the ideal labor for producing agricultural products for export from the Caribbean. From the first efforts by Spain on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, through the sugar industry surge in Barbados, Jamaica and Saint Domingue, African slavery in the Caribbean was a supporting pillar of the economies tied to plantations. Slavery in the region formed hierarchical societies that were intensely divided ethnically and racially. In general terms, slavery in the Caribbean was based on a less than total domination by a small number — in most of the islands and territories — of economically elite and free whites over a large number of black slaves.

The social structure of the Caribbean colonies led to many contradictions. In other words, the intended rigidity of the social structure of the plantation-era Caribbean was constantly threatened in the measure that both groups (owners and slaves) interacted in the tasks that were essential for the subsistence of the colony. Among the white owners and the black slaves there were segments that questioned the neat social structure. While the white slave owners were at the top of the social pyramid, they coexisted in the colony with whites of lower social rank such as the clergy, merchants, doctors, lawyers and, finally, laborers and farmers. On the other hand, the considerable numbers of blacks and free people of mixed race broke up the desired social structure.

For more than 350 years, Caribbean societies developed economically within the confines of the exploitation of millions of black Africans brought forcibly to the Caribbean coasts, indelibly changing Caribbean societies. It is not hard to imagine that such a magnitude of exploitation would engender and maintain the idea of white superiority to the detriment of a large part of society. The severity of the exploitation was also palpable in the forms of resistance. A slave in the Caribbean struggled and struggled to break the chains of this oppressive system. Thus the culture of resistance is one of the most significant characteristics of the region.

The Caribbean can also be seen as consisting of newly created societies that resulted from the constant migrations of Europeans, Africans and Asians. The heterogeneity of Caribbean cultures is the result of internal and external social dynamics to which the people in this historical chapter of the Americas were subjected. Among these dynamics are two Caribbean experiences that constantly intersect. We have already commented on the culture born under the yoke of slavery and the social rigidity of the plantation. Counter-plantation cultures also formed, however. Both are essential and constituent parts of Caribbean cultural formation.

From the crumbling of the socio-racial order came the blurred Caribbean cultures that are syncretic and hybrid. The Caribbean cultural attitude evolved from the ingenuity and creativity in search of ways to ease the impoverished conditions under which millions of subjects lived. The Caribbean seduced social sectors of the colonizing countries in search of wealth through the forcible movement of thousands of enslaved humans. This combination of human beings from different categories, with different responsibilities, benefits and privileges, and thrown together in unequal relationships, used the Caribbean and the structures created there as a canvas for developing new ways of doing, thinking and creating. These relationships, and therefore these cultural forms, never lost power. From cultural elements transplanted from various populations (Europeans, Africans, Amerindians, Asian) sprouted new cultures — as Cabán noted in his introductory essay in the Culture area — that were supersyncretic.

Cultural syncretism found an important form of expression in many musical practices, but above all in the religious syncretism of Santeria or regla de ocha, the candomblé, the worship of Shangó, Vodou, or Rastafarianism. No less important are the literary and artistic forms that have been a creative wealth that displays all the diversity and syncretism of the Caribbean.

The contemporary Caribbean

The contemporary Caribbean shoulders a historical legacy that has profound influence on the region’s political, economic, social and cultural structures. From a socio-political point of view, the Caribbean region is more known for its differences than its similarities. For example, coexisting in the Caribbean are republican systems in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Guyana and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; parliamentary systems that are mostly part of the British Commonwealth, with the exception of the Dutch territories of Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius, which are considered municipalities of the Netherlands, while Aruba, Curaçao and St. Martin are considered countries within the same kingdom. The French-speaking Caribbean, meanwhile, is organized into semi-presidential systems.

In general terms, as José Raúl Perales notes in the Politics and Society area, the state “has played a more direct role in the economic and social development of Caribbean countries than in Latin American or North American countries.” Despite its presence, however, the state has been weak and has been limited to exercising the role of administrator or referee on productive relationships.

Sugar gave way as the most valuable export product in the Caribbean to make room for the luxury hotel rooms where millions of people from Europe and the United States sunbathe and spend millions of dollars each year on vacations. Caribbean beaches welcome more than 20 million tourists, mostly from the United States and Europe. The Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic are the main tourist destinations in the Caribbean island region. In the Bahamas, for example, tourism represented 46.1% of the total gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010. After many years of absence in this important economic sector, the island of Cuba — with its huge coastline, housing capacity and rich culture — is now one of the most popular destinations in the region. The importance of tourism can be seen in the substantial increase from 1.8% of Cuba’s GDP in 1989 to 13.8% in 2005. However, betting on tourism as a source of economic development presents economic, environmental and cultural challenges that should be addressed simultaneously along with the development of tourism facilities in the region.

The Caribbean has simultaneously been fed and bled by the multiple migrations within and beyond the Caribbean. The lack of economic and social development and the ability of Caribbean residents to travel and settle in the former colonizing countries or in other parts of the region have made the Caribbean a place of continuous human movement. The huge populations of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Trinidadians and Jamaicans in the United States and Canada result in transnational economic, social and cultural relationships. The same is the case with Jamaicans and Trinidadians in Britain and people from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti in Montreal and France. There are also significant populations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and Dominicans and Cubans in Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean presents a challenge for any work that tries to synthesize it in its totality. The expert reader will notice thematic omissions when exploring the Caribbean section. These omissions here are not the result of specific intent, but rather reflect the region’s own complexity and heterogeneity. The intent of this essay, therefore, is to provide a general overview of the Caribbean anchored in five specific aspects, addressed in a very general form. The articles presented in the Caribbean section of the Puerto Rico Online Encyclopedia go into more depth and expand on topics (and others) that have been briefly outlined here in introductory form.

The Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities is pleased to present to the online public the Caribbean section of the Puerto Rico Online Encyclopedia. Our efforts were aimed at providing useful information to readers eager for a better understanding of the Caribbean and intellectual enrichment. We hope you enjoy it.


Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: July 11, 2012.

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