The main characteristic of the Caribbean is its variety: a broad and varied territory bathed by the sea that gives it its name, consisting of a mosaic of islands where European conquerors arrived one day, bringing Western civilization. Various empires have exercised their power and influence here since the 16th century. During those centuries, they handed down their languages, their religious creeds and concepts and their particular version of the idea of capitalism: a thirst for wealth. The result is that each island has its own particular history.
Despite the Caribbean’s cultural, racial and linguistic variety, the unifying thread has been the pursuit of wealth by the colonizers. All of the islands and territories called Caribbean have lived under the plantation regime, which was based on slavery and lasted until its abolition in the late 19th century. With the arrival of the new century, the plantation was transformed into an agricultural export industry with brutal working conditions (the same work the slaves did) at very low wages. Despite the great variety — political, linguistic, religious and racial — that existed in the Caribbean, its development has been closely tied to political, military and economic domination of the region by the United States in the 20th century.
After its easy victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States became the dominant power in the region. Through the war, it obtained Puerto Rico and in 1917 it bought the Danish Virgin Islands for $25 million, thus acquiring its Caribbean territories. In the same way, the new power treated the other islands as if they were colonies, with privileged access to their natural resources, compliant and cheap labor, a cooperative political elite, and a friendly climate for investments. During the 20th century, the Caribbean became an economic appendage of the United States, subject to its geo-strategic needs.
The United States’ geo-military strategy in the region during the 20th century was determined in large part by the Panama Canal. Initially, the United States negotiated the construction of the canal with Colombia, as Panama was a province of that South American country. After the negotiations failed, the young power provided weapons to the timid revolt by a pro-independence group in the region. The United States immediately recognized Panama’s declaration of independence and two weeks later the two countries signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The treaty provided for the construction and perpetual control of the canal and a zone 5 miles wide on each side. This territory, known as the Canal Zone, became an unincorporated territory of the United States until it was handed over in the late 20th century.
A peculiar society arose from life in the Canal Zone. The so-called Zonians consisted of members of the military and civilians from the United States who worked in the zone, African-Americans and African-Antilleans who came from the British islands to work on the canal during its construction from 1904 to 1914. Spaniards and immigrants from Latin American countries also came. This society reflected the racial prejudices of the era and was racially segregated. The people of Panama criticized long and hard the Canal Zone because it divided the country into two parts. Over the years, the protests against the U.S. presence on the isthmus intensified. In 1964, U.S. troops massacred Panamanian students who protested by approaching the border of the controlled territory. During the 1970s, the Carter-Torrijos Treaty was negotiated. It established that the Canal and the land along it would be handed over to the Panama Government in the last year of the 20th century. When the Canal Zone was handed over, most of the white residents from the United States returned home while the black Zonians integrated into the national society and became Panamanian.
The United States has not hesitated to intervene in other countries when it has believed that its economic interests and “national security” were threatened. In the early decades of the 20th century, U.S. troops occupied the islands of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The United States also invaded Central American nations such as Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. On some occasions, the military occupation governments tried to establish educational and health reforms. The legacy of these occupations was harmful in that it led to the establishment of oligarchies that were never interested in their countries’ development. It is important to note that all of the military occupations were resisted to greater or lesser extents by part of the populations. In some cases, there were violent attacks on the soldiers or the occupying force’s interests.
Beginning in the 1930s, various dictatorial regimes were installed that were accommodating to U.S. interests in exchange for U.S. support. Thus were the dictatorships of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, François Duvalier in Haiti and Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic established. In the context of the Cold War, which dominated the foreign policy of the large powers, the United States was more interested in establishing allies than promoting democratic causes. That is why the School of the Americas was established in Panama in 1946 to train militaries in the hemisphere. It was where the Latin American military class that was behind the cruel dictatorships of the Cold War years in the Caribbean and Central and South America was trained.
The revolutions in Cuba in 1959 and in Nicaragua 20 years later must be seen as reactions to U.S. interventionism and the despotism of regimes backed by the country. The United States, afraid that the Cuban Revolution would be repeated, intervened in the Dominican Republic after a period of social instability following the overthrow of the elected president, Juan Bosch, in 1963. The United States intervened on the island of Grenada to stop a coup backed by Cuba in 1983. It also invaded Panama in 1989 in a much criticized action to arrest dictator Manuel Noriega on charges of drug trafficking.
During the post-war years, a process began that led to the independence of many of the Caribbean colonies. The colonizing countries gradually granted more autonomy in local issues to their colonies and, in the case of the British and Danish colonies, encouraged them toward independence. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence from Britain in 1962, as did Barbados, the Bahamas, Dominica and Grenada in subsequent years. Suriname, the former Dutch Guiana, obtained independence in 1975. Other jurisdictions opted to establish autonomy agreements with their respective colonial powers. In 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established, giving island residents the power to govern on local issues, maintain their Spanish language and their own sports and cultural personality. Similarly, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire maintained a relationship with Holland, while Martinique, Guadalupe and French Guyana became integral parts of France as Overseas Departments with representation in the National Assembly and the right to vote for president.
Beginning with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the Caribbean was seen as a commodity producing region that would feed the industries and needs of the markets in the metropolitan centers. During the 20th century, U.S. capital, which was present since the middle of the 19th century, was extended throughout the Caribbean. The U.S. fruit companies controlled huge swaths of land for growing bananas in Central America. To a large measure, they also controlled the governments of the countries where those farms were located.
The presence of U.S. capital was felt on the Caribbean islands through the sugar industry, which it now controlled. Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico dedicated the majority of their arable land to planting sugar cane. The majority of the population was involved in some manner in the powerful industry and during the harvest months, the central sugar mills hired workers en masse. This exhausting, low-paid work under the sun only lasted a few months, leaving thousands of workers idle during long periods of inactivity. The intense use of labor led to numerous migrations in the region. Thousands of Haitians and Jamaicans periodically went to work in Cuba, and those from other Antillean islands went to the Dominican Republic, with most of them returning to their home islands during the “dead time,” when there was no work.
The intense use of arable land for monoculture industries impeded the planting of the food needed to supply the population. It was necessary therefore to import food, which caused the prices to be too high for the low salaries. Even revolutionary Cuba, which opposed foreign domination, used most of its arable land to supply the sugar market in the Soviet sphere. Another consequence of monoculture was deforestation of the islands and the subsequent erosion of the soil. This has altered the climactic patterns in the region. In particular, there has been a reduction in rain and an increase in temperatures. Additionally, the supply of water is not sufficient on the smallest islands and its scarcity has been one of the main problems for the future of the Caribbean.
Another important product was petroleum, extracted — also with U.S. capital — on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Refineries were also built on the islands of Puerto Rico, Aruba and Curacao to process this oil and that obtained from nearby Venezuela. The refineries closed, however, after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Important bauxite mines, used for making aluminum, were located in Suriname and Jamaica. In fact, during World War II, the United States invaded Suriname to keep the Germans, who had invaded Holland, from controlling its production. There have also been modest industries aimed at meeting local demand: beer, clothing and food, to mention a few. In the final decades of the century, due to the growth of international industries and retail chains, local industries and businesses have been disappearing.
In Puerto Rico, the establishment of the Commonwealth used a development strategy of inviting foreign capital so that manufacturing industries would invest in the island. This model, which was initially successful, was implemented in other countries in the region. “Operation Bootstrap” created thousands of better paying jobs, which was hoped would stimulate social and economic development through consumption. In exchange, these industries were offered substantial tax breaks for long periods of time. However, the plants on the island were closed when the tax breaks ended. Manufacturing factories, oil refineries and pharmaceutical manufacturers were established on the island under this plan.
During the 1990s, the U.S. Congress eliminated the measure that created the tax benefits, so the creation of jobs in Puerto Rico is one of the island’s most pressing problems today. At the same time, with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba was forced to declare a “Special Period” as its economy suddenly lost important sources of income.
With the transformation of traditional economic models, the Caribbean islands have turned their efforts toward the tourism industry, which is also dominated by foreign capital. However, like the sugar industry, tourism offers low-paying and low-level jobs, mostly in the services area, while the better-paying managerial positions are almost exclusively reserved for foreigners. At the same time, tourism leads to a certain level of expropriation of the most beautiful areas for the exclusive use of tourists. The large hotel companies rarely rely on local products, preferring to import food, and they make intense use of the scarce water and energy resources. The industry is also subject to economic fluctuations that the islands cannot affect. Despite the passage of time and the various economic options, the Caribbean economies’ greatest weakness is their dependence on the metropolitan centers. In particular, those that maintain autonomous relationships are dependent on monetary contributions from their old colonial masters.
Crime rates have increased with the lack of economic alternatives. Since its insertion into the European trade system during the 16th century, smuggling has been an important component of the Caribbean economy. Contraband during the era of exclusive trade rights, the slave trade after its prohibition and the drug trafficking and illegal immigration of today are examples of a long history. The Antilles are an intermediate point between South American production and North American consumption: a bridge of islands that connects the two. The million-dollar profits resulting from the illegal drug trade leave behind a trail of criminal violence and high levels of civil, governmental and financial corruption.
The movement of Caribbean people has been another characteristic of the region’s history. From the waves of Arawaks who sailed to the islands in pre-Columbian times, the millions of Africans enslaved to work in the Caribbean colonies or the slaves who sought refuge on other islands, all reflected the migratory dynamic of the region. Whether to cut sugar cane on the plantations or work in construction in Puerto Rico or Miami, the need for work has been the most powerful attraction that has led to movements of populations.
In the early 20th century, the largest migratory movement took place within the region. Men were attracted by offers of work on other islands during the harvest months, looking for the dollars they would be paid so they could support their families. During the “dead time,” they returned to their home islands to wait, unemployed, for the next harvest. Thus thousands of Haitians, Jamaicans, and other islanders periodically moved to help support their families and the economies of the exporting islands.
With the passage of the decades and the decline in the agriculture industry, Caribbean peoples expanded the range of their migrations and reached more distant destinations. Even in the late 19th century, there were Caribbean communities in New York City. Until restrictions were placed on immigration in the middle of the 1920s, many African-Antilleans migrated from Jamaica and the British Virgin Islands. Puerto Ricans, who had U.S. citizenship beginning in 1917, entered more easily, although they faced the same prejudices as other immigrants.
This African-Caribbean community, Spanish or English speaking, was very important in developing a black identity in the United States. For example, the Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg conducted research in New York City and compiled an important record for studying African history and the diaspora that resulted from slavery. Also from this community came Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who led the Black Movement, an important social movement of racial affirmation, during the 1920s. This revaluation of black identity among African-Americans was essential for bringing about the so-called Harlem Renaissance that unfolded a clear cultural expression of blackness in literature, as well as the graphic arts and sciences. This sense of racial identity was vital for the community’s struggle for civil rights in U.S. society.
Co-existence among Caribbean peoples also has had its moments of terror, however. The racial, linguistic and religious differences among the Caribbean populations generate, even today, quarrels and mistreatment. The most terrible case occurred during the fall of 1937, when soldiers in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship assassinated between 15,000 and 25,000 Haitian residents of the Dominican Republic under a plan to “Dominicanize” or “whiten” the society.
After World War II, residents of the British Virgin Islands and Jamaica migrated to Great Britain, attracted by offers of jobs in rebuilding the British cities destroyed during the German air raids. The African-Caribbean workers suffered the worst working conditions and lived in the poorest housing, however. They were also victims of racial violence by working-class whites. Even today, black Britons, their descendants, have not totally integrated into British society and live in worse conditions than the rest of the country. Residents of the French islands also migrated to France. This migration was not as numerous, however, although it slowly grew over the course of the century. As citizens of the French Overseas Departments, residents of French Guyana, Guadalupe and Martinique can travel to France without restrictions.
The influence of these Caribbean communities in the metropolitan centers, now a century old and regularly revitalized with new waves of migration, have left a mark on various corners of today’s global culture. In New York City, for example, the Caribbean cultural variety makes a big influence on gastronomy and fashion. The most visible Caribbean contribution to global popular culture, however, has been music. Cubans and Puerto Ricans have made extremely valuable contributions to the essentially American genre of jazz. A wide range of Afro-Latino rhythms, such as charanga, pachanga, boogaloo and salsa, have arisen from the mix of various Caribbean nationalities living together and joining their musical traditions. Since the 1980s, the mix of Caribbean, Anglo and Hispanic influences has been integrated into the African-American hip-hop culture.
Still today, in the 21st century, fragmentation defines the Caribbean. We know very little about the histories and current situations of other sites in the region. Due to the dependence on the most powerful economies for survival, especially the United States, the Caribbean people have not been able to sustain a stable, responsive and economically supportive society for the majority of the population. Despite that, the varied character of the Caribbean peoples has allowed them to make important contributions to the global culture, whether in literature, graphic arts or cinema, or in the popular culture and the media.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: July 11, 2012.
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