Caribbean; disunity, disrepair, opportunity 30-Dec-2021

The Caribbean is a good canary in the coal mine for how much the balance of world power is really changing.

It’s a mixed up grey area which attracts an unusual sort of global attention.  Even the biggest islands are relatively small, with small populations, and relatively few natural resources. Worse still, the Caribbean is prone to earthquakes and hurricanes.

The countries on the coasts of the Caribbean are substantially weightier, the US most so.

The Caribbean is important to the US. It’s relatively easier for adversaries to slip into, to establish presences, or for criminal activities such as drugs smuggling. The Caribbean Sea is the path to the Panama Canal.

There are a few reasons regionally external countries are interested in the Caribbean beyond the beaches and sunshine.

Mixed inheritance - about the Caribbean

The people, territories, interests, and influences in the Caribbean are varied.

The indigenous peoples on the islands, the Taíno for example, the first people Christopher Columbus met, are practically extinct. They were a relatively small population, killed by disease and slavery. Only small traces of them remain in the DNA of today’s Caribbean population, and relatives can be found on the South American mainland.

Otherwise, the Caribbean people are now mostly of African, European, and Indian (South Asian) descent.

The islands also make territorial division easier, and therefore political control. The biggest islands (by land and population) of Cuba and Hispaniola are governed by independent countries (Hispaniola is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), most of the rest of the islands, and approximately a third of the remaining population, are controlled by the UK, France, Netherlands, and the US.

Within this group, the relationships of these islands with their respective mainland countries is different. The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, are departments of France. They are fully integrated territories of France as a country, regarded the same as Haute Savoie or Pas de Calais, for example. The Netherlands' territories are constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The UK and US territories are different. The UK has “British Overseas Territories” such as the Cayman Islands or Montserrat. These are self-governing territories except for foreign policy and defence matters. The Queen of England is also the head of state in some otherwise totally independent countries such as Jamaica and the Bahamas. Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are unincorporated territories of the US. Citizens of these islands have certain rights, such as residence, but do not participate fully in the US political system.

There is no singular stewardship or coordination of the Caribbean islands.

For the Netherlands and the UK, the connection seems to be weakening. Barbados, for example, removed the Queen as head of state (BBC 30-Nov-2021), though it remains in the Commonwealth. The Caribbean Court of Justice also succeeded the UK's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the court of final appeal in a number of countries. There is some ambiguity about whether this is because the UK no longer wanted to deal with certain cases, or certain decisions were unacceptable, or whether it was a matter of greater independence.

In the early 2000s there was a small stirring of an independence movement in the dutch territories, but it fizzled out. They didn’t have the same confidence in self-governing. Conversely, there’s some scepticism among the dutch about why they still pay for and bother with these islands.

Stormy seas - economy

Many of the smaller islands are in a similarly precarious position to the dutch islands. The main sources of income in the Caribbean are agriculture, tourism, minerals, some financial services, and remittances. Some of the larger countries (Cuba and Haiti in particular) have other problems.

Tourism makes up almost half the economy on some islands and it was cut to almost nothing in 2020 (IMF 12-Mar-2021). The large drop in commodities prices in 2020 also affected Trinidad and Tobago (IDB Apr-2020), where approximately 40% of GDP comes from oil and natural gas (CIA 21-Dec-2021).

Some analysis expects remittances to increase in 2021 (World Bank 17-Nov-2021). Last year in 2020 it was already a very high percentage of the economy in the major Caribbean countries e.g. Dominican Republic (10.6%), Haiti (21.4%), Jamaica (22.2%). An increase would be worse for these places. It’s a sign that these countries are less economically viable in their own independent right. It’s also a sign that a large amount of their productive workforce is elsewhere. It means that these countries are not truly building their own economies.

Some islands tried to tackle this with a move into financial services. In a less polite and roundabout way, a few of these places became tax havens. This only delays the problem and suffers from a similar problem to reliance on remittances. The real financial work happens elsewhere, in cities like London or New York. The financial services industries in these places are elaborate paperwork and bureaucracy chicanery. Some measures to become more transparent and eliminate crime have proceeded in recent years, but a major risk is still dissatisfaction with tax avoidance. These countries are at risk of a change in political moods. The timing could be ripe in a post-pandemic, economically hit world, where politicians respond to disgruntled publics which want the problem, as they might perceive it, tackled once and for all.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), despite optimistic intentions, is not particularly promising either. CARICOM is an attempt at recreating a similar style of economic area to the EEC or EU in Europe. The European economies are mostly connected directly by land. This is obviously not true in the Caribbean. The reasons behind why there is a lack of economic integration, cooperation, etc. are physically different, not just politically blocked.

Some of the larger countries have an almost opposite economic problem. Physical barriers (excluding hurricanes and earthquakes) are not their main problem. Cuba and Haiti are notoriously poor and poorly governed. The two are related.

Haiti has a very unfortunate past. It bore a unique burden among all the Caribbean countries - the french. Well, really the debt which France forced on it after Haiti won its independence. Haiti was made in 1825 to pay reparations to France for the loss of their slaves. This debt was only fully repaid in 1947. It meant that for over a hundred years the Haitians could not properly invest in building their own infrastructure and other basics, building their own future. It never built a well-functioning state and is now today instead a sort of protectorate of the US. This is an unfortunate position for the Haitians. There is no appetite among the Americans to do anything to truly help them to build a country. The Haitians should not expect anything more than superficial aid unless the relationship drastically changes.

Cuba is also poor but certainly not a protectorate of the US. Communism and corruption are certainly problems, but sanctions mean that it faces other obstacles in economic development. There was some suggestion that US-Cuba relations might thaw under Barack Obama (Reuters 17-Dec-2014) but it never happened. It’s less geopolitically risky for the US to try to keep the balance of power and international relationships exactly the same in the Caribbean.

Get off my lawn - US foreign policy in the Caribbean

The Monroe Doctrine is usually cited US foreign policy in the Caribbean.

It is the view, put forward by President James Monroe in 1823, that the entire Western Hemisphere is the US’s sphere of influence, that European powers would not be permitted to establish new footholds there, any attempt would be viewed as an act of aggression, and that in return the US would stay out of the Old World countries’ established spheres of influence in the Old World.

The idea that the Monroe Doctrine still stands as US foreign policy comes and goes with various US administrations. If it does still stand it is certainly quite tattered and full of holes. US interference in the Old World is extensive. The Cuban Missile Crisis and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) today look precisely like the kind of thing Monroe was concerned about.

A number of important countries in or on the shores of the Caribbean Sea are participating in China’s BRI. Cuba (Times 19-Oct-2021), Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, the Dominican Republic (Reuters 28-Jan-2020), Jamaica (Jamaica Observer 21-Apr-2019), and Haiti (HuffPost 04-Aug-2017). China is also very interested in building an alternative canal through Nicaragua, though the project is paused (Times 19-Jun-2017).

Elsewhere, Russia (and China) are helping to upgrade the railway system in Cuba (Reuters 14-Jul-2019) and India wants to boost its economic and diplomatic relationships with the CARICOM countries (Economic Times 26-Sep-2019).

There’s clearly a gradual loss of US control and influence, not just in the 1900s, which is getting greater now. The Dominican Republic took Chinese loans and cancelled its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan (BBC 01-May-2018). Is there a connection between Barbados’s removal of the Queen as head of state, change into a republic, and the money it’s taking from communist, western-adversary China?

Control of the Caribbean means control of the Panama Canal, a point of very important economic and geopolitical consequence. Control of the Caribbean would also mean control of a prospective new Nicaragua Canal. A new Nicaragua Canal would also allow an alternative route around South America, which is another new area of interest for China.

What’s next?

There is no united approach from the Caribbean countries toward external countries. Most of the countries in the Caribbean are small and poor. They will all have suffered economically from the pandemic.

This is an opportunity for the US to reassert itself or for other countries to explore their options.

Why isn’t Brazil more active?