Fidel and other combatants celebrate the triumph of the revolution.

Fidel and other combatants celebrate the triumph of the revolution.

Progressive and revolutionary thinkers and revolutionary movements have had a strong impact on the political history of the Caribbean, and the Americas in general. The first revolutionary movement in the Americas was the U.S. revolution of 1776, followed by the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and later by the struggles for independence from the Spanish empire that were led by Simon Bolivar in Venezuela in the early 19th century. Later came the Mexican Revolution of 1910, with figures such as álvaro Obregón, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata. Added to this list are the struggles led by José Martí in Cuba in the late 19th century or those led by Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua in the early 20th century and the Cuban Revolution in the middle of the century. In the second half of the 20th century, revolutionary activity continued and the region saw revolutionary movements in Nicaragua with the Sandinista Revolutionary Front (FRS, for its Spanish acronym), in El Salvador with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN, for its Spanish acronym), in Chiapas, Mexico with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, for its Spanish acronym) led by legendary Subcommander Marcos, in Colombia with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for its Spanish acronym), and even more recently, in Venezuela with the Bolivarian Revolution led by Hugo Chávez. The region has been, without doubt, a hotbed of revolutionary political ideas.

The region has also been known for the presence of totalitarian governments (in many cases, in the form of dynasties) in the period following independence, and many of those dictatorships arose in the region during the course of the 20th century: Fulgencio Batista en Cuba (1952-1959), the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti (François “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1964 to 1971 and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from 1971 to 1986), Manuel A. Noriega in Panama (1983-1989), and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (1930-1961). In Guatemala, a chain of fascist military dictators governed the country form 1970 to 1986, from Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio (1970-1974) to José Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) and óscar Humberto Mejía Victores (1983-1986). The Somoza dynasty ruled in Nicaragua (Anastasio Somoza García from 1950 to 1956 and Luis Somoza Debayle from 1956 to 1963). In addition to these examples, there are many single-party systems in the region, or systems in which more than one party exists in theory, but only one has held power nearly indefinitely. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the People’s National Movement remained in power from 1956 to 1986. In Antigua, the Antigua Labour Party has maintained almost exclusive control of power since 1951. In St. Kitts and Nevis, the Saint Kitts and Nevis Labour Party has not lost an election since 1962. And in Grenada, the Grenada United Labour Party was in power from 1951 to 1979, the year that Maurice Bishop led a Marxist coup de etat. In Cuba, the dynasty of brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro has governed since 1959 without interruption.

The political environment in the region has also been strongly affected by the numerous interventions by the United States government. Since 1823, the U.S. foreign policy toward the Caribbean region has been motivated by zealous opposition to interventions by European governments in the Americas and the idea that “America is for Americans” was recognized in the Monroe doctrine, stated in 1823 by James Monroe. The Monroe doctrine was used to defend the struggles for independence in South America. Also, in accordance with the Monroe doctrine, President Theodore Roosevelt introduced a corollary called big stick diplomacy, which came to be part of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century. The phrase came from a West African proverb that says “Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far.” In practice, the Monroe doctrine and the big stick diplomacy led to numerous interventions by the U.S. government in the Caribbean region, both in the form of military involvement and operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The change of policy implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, called the Good Neighbor Policy, implied even greater involvement in the region through financing for national and local security forces. The list of interventions by the United States in the political affairs of Caribbean countries in the 20th century is extensive: Honduras (1903, 1907, 1911, 1919, 1924-1925, 1982-1990, 2009), The Dominican Republic (1903-1904, 1914, 1916-1924, 1965-1966), Cuba (1898-1902, 1906-1909, 1912, 1917-1933, 1961, 1962), Nicaragua (1907, 1910, 1912-1933, 1981-1990), Panama (1908, 1912, 1918-1920, 1921, 1925, 1958, 1964, 1989), Mexico (1912, 1913, 1914-1918), Haiti (1914-1934, 1994-1995, 2004-to today), Guatemala (1920, 1954, 1966-1967), Costa Rica (1921), El Salvador (1932, 1981-1992), Puerto Rico (1950), Grenada (1983-1984), and Venezuela (2002). Most notable among these was the military occupation of Nicaragua for 20 years (1912-1933), of Haiti for 19 years (1914-1934), of the Dominican Republic for 8 years (1916-1924) and of Cuba for 16 years (1917-1933). Apart from military interventions and intelligence operations, the U.S. government has also maintained a strong military presence in the region through numerous naval and air bases strategically located in relation to the Panama Canal: the Soto Cano base in Palmerola, Honduras, the Guantánamo base in Cuba, the Coolidge Airfield on the island of Antigua, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in the Andros islands of the Bahamas, and the Waller Air Force Base in Trinidad and Tobago (1940-1949). Added to this list are approximately 25 military bases that the United States maintained on the island of Puerto Rico at various times during the 20th century, including the Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla, Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Ceiba and the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility in Vieques (until 2003), and Fort Buchanan in San Juan. More recently, as part of the fight against drug trafficking, the U.S. military has maintained permanent personnel at the Queen Beatrice base in Aruba and the Hatos base in Curaçao. The obvious militarization of the region has greatly contributed to an environment of tension and creates the setting in which Caribbean political thinking has developed. In addition to the militarization of the region, many social scientists have pointed to the existence of a highly authoritarian, selfish, intransigent pan-Caribbean political culture with little democratic experience as one of the many causes of the tense environment and constant political unrest in the region.

New Jewel Movement

New Jewel Movement

But the event that has unquestionably had the most influence on the political and ideological struggles of the Caribbean region in recent history was the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Since 1959, the ideological and military struggle between, on one side, a Cuban revolutionary government interested in promoting a conservative Marxist ideology and spreading its revolution to other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, and, on the other side, a U.S. government interested in countering the Soviet and Marxist ideological influence in the region, has inevitably affected all parts of political and ideological life in the Caribbean region. Both ideological sides have been on a war footing since 1959. The U.S.government, on one side, has remained active in the region, although the last significant military incursion related to the ideological conflict was the invasion of the island of Grenada in 1983. In fact, the invasion of Grenada was the first significant operation by the U.S. military after the Vietnam War.
In 1979, a communist movement called New Jewel (an acronym of New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation) and led by Maurice Bishop (a communist leader whose political thinking was intertwined with Black Power ideas) overthrew the government of Eric Gairy. Once in power, Bishop established ties with Cuba and invited Cuban construction battalions to help build a new international airport called Point Salines, with a 9,800 feet long landing strip. The U.S. government, concerned about Bishop’s Marxist leanings, saw the construction of the airport as a threat to the sea routes to the Panama Canal and through the Caribbean Sea, as well as a possible link for transporting Soviet military armaments to Cuba and Nicaragua (which was then under a communist government). Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, had strong anti-communist convictions, and to him the construction of the airport was unacceptable. In March of 1983, Reagan announced that the length of the runway at Point Salines was more appropriate for landing large military transport planes, that the huge petroleum storage tanks were not necessary for commercial flights, and that the airport would certainly become a Cuban-Soviet air base. But the United States could not deny the unquestionable support that Bishop had, so it could not take action against him or overthrow him through elections. For some of the members of his movement, Bishop’s leftist ideas were not radical enough. Among these was Bernard Coard, Bishop’s personal assistant and close friend. In October of 1983, Coard,with the support of the army, overthrew Bishop in a coup, executing him and a hundred members of his inner circle. This led the United States to intervene in Grenada in a military operation called Operation Urgent Fury, ousting the new regime just six days later. On October 25, 1983, at 5:00 a.m., 7,000 U.S. soldiers, along with 300 soldiers from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), specifically Barbados and Jamaica, landed in Grenada and confronted 1,500 Grenadian soldiers and 700 Cubans (most of them construction employees and military engineers). In a few days, the revolutionary government was removed by force. The U.S. military forces suffered 19 deaths and 116 injuries. Forty-five Grenadian troops and at least 24 civilians died, and 358 soldiers were wounded. Twenty-five Cubans died in action, 59 were wounded, and 638 were taken prisoner.

Under the government of President Ronald Reagan, the ideological struggle was extended to Nicaragua, where a Marxist guerrilla group had overthrown pro-U.S. dictator Luis Somoza Debayle in 1979. In this case, military intervention was indirect, in the form of financing for the counterrevolutionary group known as the Contras.

The ideological struggle in the Caribbean region has gone beyond military interventions and intelligence operations. Both the United States and Venezuela have adopted economic initiatives aimed at creating jobs and reducing poverty in the region as a way to counteract the opposing ideology. For example, in 1983 the United States created the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which established a free trade zone with customs benefits that equal those of Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Meanwhile, the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has also launched economic initiatives to promote its socialist cause, such as the Petrocaribe agreement, an energy cooperation pact between Venezuela and 14 Caribbean Basin countries that was originally signed in 2005. Under the agreement, Venezuela allows the other countries to buy up to 185,000 barrels of oil per day under preferential financial terms.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 31, 2012.

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