Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

THE COMMONWEALTH CARIBBEAN is the term applied to the English- speaking islands in the Carribbean and the mainland nations of Belize (formerly British Honduras) and Guyana (formerly British Guiana) that once constituted the Caribbean portion of the British Empire. This volume examines only the islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean, which are Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada), Barbados, the Leeward Islands (Antigua and Barbuda, St. Christopher [hereafter, St. Kitts] and Nevis, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Montserrat), and the so-called Northern Islands (the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands).

To the casual observer, these islands might appear to be too disparate to allow for a common discussion. Consider, for instance, the differences in population, size, income, ethnic composition, and political status among the various islands. Anguilla's 7,000 residents live on an island totaling 91 square kilometers, whereas Jamaica has a population of 2.3 million and a territory of nearly 11,000 square kilometers. The per capita gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary) of the Cayman Islands is nearly fourteen times as large as that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Trinidad and Tobago's population is evenly divided between blacks and East Indians, a pattern quite different from that on the other islands, on which blacks constitute an overwhelming majority. Although most of the islands are independent nations, five (the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands) remain British dependencies.

These and other differences, however, should not obscure the extensive ties that bind the islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean. For instance, the islands' populations clearly regard themselves as distinct from their Latin American neighbors and identify more closely with the British Commonwealth of Nations than with Latin America (see Appendix B). All of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands except Grenada supported Britain's actions during the 1982 South Atlantic War in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, in sharp contrast to the strong Latin American defense of the Argentine position.

This perceived distinctiveness emerged from the islands' shared historical experiences. Their transformation during the seventeenth century from a tobacco- to a sugar-based economy permanently changed life on the islands, as a plantation society employing African slave labor replaced the previous society of small landholders (see The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery, ch. 1). By the early nineteenth century, blacks constituted at least 80 percent of the population in all but one of the British Caribbean islands. The exception was Trinidad, which had begun bringing in large numbers of slaves only in the 1780s and 1790s. When the British abolished slavery in the Caribbean in the 1830s, Trinidadian planters imported indentured labor from India to work the sugarcane fields. Despite their numerical minority, whites continued to control political and economic affairs throughout the islands. Indeed, the all-white House of Assembly in Jamaica abolished itself in 1865 rather than share power with blacks. This abrogation of local assemblies and establishment of crown colony government (see Glossary) was the norm in the British Caribbean in the late 1800s and impeded the development of political parties and organizations.

Demands for political reform quickened after World War I with the appearance of a nascent middle class and the rise of trade unions. In the mid-1930s, the islands became engulfed by riots spawned by the region's difficult economic conditions (see Labor Organizations, ch. 1). The riots demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old sugar plantation system and sounded the death knell for colonial government. Beginning in the 1940s, the British allowed increasing levels of self-government and encouraged the emergence of moderate black political leaders. As a prelude to political independence for the region, the British established a federation in 1958 consisting of ten island groupings. The West Indies Federation succumbed, however, to the parochial concerns of the two largest members--Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago--both of which declared independence in 1962. Between 1966 and 1983, eight additional independent nations were carved out of the British Caribbean.

These ten island nations are located in a strategically significant area. Merchant or naval shipping from United States ports in the Gulf of Mexico--including resupply of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in wartime--cross narrow Caribbean passages that constitute "choke points." The Caribbean Basin also links United States naval forces operating in the North Atlantic and South Atlantic areas and provides an important source of many raw materials imported by the United States (see Current Strategic Considerations, ch. 7).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the United States asserted its interest in the Caribbean by frequently intervening in the affairs of the Hispanic islands. It did not involve itself, however, in the British colonies, a difference that may explain the relatively harmonious state of relations between the United States and the Commonwealth Caribbean islands when compared with the often contentious tone evident in United States- Latin American interactions. During World War II, and especially after 1960, the United States began to assume Britain's security and defense responsibilities for the Commonwealth Caribbean. Nonetheless, Britain continued to provide police training and remained an important trading partner with the region.

The political systems of the Commonwealth Caribbean nations paradoxically are both stable and fragile. All have inherited strong democratic traditions and parliamentary systems of government formed on the Westminster model. Political succession generally has been handled peacefully and democratically. For example, Barbados' Parliament deftly coped with the deaths in office of prime ministers J.M.G.M. "Tom" Adams in 1985 and Errol Barrow in 1987. At the same time, however, the multi-island character of many of these nations makes them particularly susceptible to fragmentation. The British had hoped to lessen the vulnerability of the smaller islands by making them part of larger, more viable states. This policy often was resented deeply by the unions' smaller partners, who charged that the larger islands were neglecting them. The most contentious case involved one of the former members of the West Indies Federation, St. Kitts-Nevis- Anguilla. In 1967 Anguillans evicted the Kittitian police force from the island and shortly thereafter declared independence. Despite the landing of British troops on the island two years later, Anguilla continued to resist union with St. Kitts and Nevis. Ultimately, the British bowed to Anguillan sentiments and administered the island as a separate dependency. Separatist attitudes also predominated in Nevis; the situation there was resolved, however, by granting Nevisians extensive local autonomy and a guaranteed constitutional right of secession.

The fragility of these systems also has been underscored in the 1980s by a reliance on violence for political ends. Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines offered the most dramatic examples (see Regional Security Threats, 1970-81, ch. 7). Over a four-year span, Grenada experienced the overthrow of a democratically elected but corrupt administration, the establishment of the self-styled People's Revolutionary Government (PRG), the bloody collapse of the PRG and its replacement by the hard-line Revolutionary Military Council, and the intervention of United States troops and defense and police forces from six Commonwealth Caribbean nations (Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines). In 1981 the Dominican government foiled a coup attempt involving a former prime minister, the country's defense force, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, mercenaries, and underworld elements from the United States. Several months later, members of the then-disbanded defense force attacked Dominica's police headquarters and prison in an effort to free the coup participants. In 1979 Rastafarians (see Glossary) seized the airport, police station, and revenue office on Union Island in the Grenadines.

Most of the island governments were quite unprepared to deal with political violence; indeed, only five--Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago--have defense forces, the largest of which has only a little over 2,000 members. In response, the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines signed a regional security accord that allowed for the coordination of defense efforts and the establishment of paramilitary units drawn from the islands' police forces. Nonetheless, Commonwealth Caribbean leaders generally opposed creating a regional army and contended that such a force might eventually threaten democracy in the region (see A Regional Security System; Controversial Security Issues, ch. 7).

Drug trafficking represents an additional threat to the islands' political systems. The Caribbean has become increasingly important as a transit point for the transshipment of narcotics from Latin America to the United States. Narcotics traffickers have offered payoffs to Caribbean officials to ensure safe passage of their product through the region. Numerous examples abound of officials prepared to enter into such arrangements. In 1985 a Miami jury convicted Chief Minister Norman Saunders of the Turks and Caicos Islands of traveling to the United States to engage in narcotics transactions. A year later, a Trinidadian and Tobagonian government report implicated cabinet members, customs officials, policemen, and bank executives in a conspiracy to ship cocaine to the United States. Bahamian prime minister Lynden O. Pindling frequently has been accused of personally profiting from drug transactions, charges that he vehemently denies. The most recent accusation came in January 1988, when a prosecution witness in the Jacksonville, Florida, trial of Colombian cocaine trafficker Carlos Lehder Rivas claimed that Lehder paid Pindling US$88,000 per month to protect the Colombian's drug operations.

Yet the greatest challenges facing the Commonwealth Caribbean in the 1980s were not political but economic. The once-dominant sugar industry was beset by inefficient production, falling yields, a steady erosion of world prices, and a substantial reduction in United States import quotas. The unemployment level on most of the islands hovered at around 20 percent, a figure that would have been much higher were it not for continued Caribbean emigration to Britain, the United States, and Canada. Ironically, however, because the islands' education systems failed to train workers for a technologically complex economy, many skilled and professional positions went unfilled. In addition, the islands were incapable of producing most capital goods required for economic growth and development; imports of such goods helped generate balance of payments deficits and increasing levels of external indebtedness.

In the early 1980s, regional leaders hoped that President Ronald Reagan's administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) would produce a substantial rise in exports to the United States, thus alleviating economic problems (see Appendix D). The most important part of the CBI--the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA) of 1983--allowed eligible Caribbean nations duty-free access to the United States for most exports until 1995. The CBERA, however, excluded some of the region's most important exports, including textiles, apparel, footwear, and sugar. Although nontraditional exports from the Caribbean to the United States increased during the first five years of the CBI, Caribbean governments expressed disappointment with the program's overall results. Legislation introduced in the United States Congress in 1987 called for an extension of the CBI until 2007, an expansion of products included under the duty-free access provision, and a restoration of sugar quotas to 1984 levels. Although the status of the bill remained uncertain in mid-1988, few analysts anticipated changes in sugar import quotas.

Despite the generally troubling economic picture, the tourist sector demonstrated considerable vitality in the 1980s. Commonwealth Caribbean nations successfully marketed the region's beauty, climate, and beaches to a receptive North American audience. As a result, many of the nations achieved dramatic increases in tourist arrivals and net earnings from tourism. For example, the number of foreign visitors to the Bahamas climbed from 1.7 million in 1982 to 3 million in 1986. The British Virgin Islands recorded 161,625 visitors in 1984, an increase of 91,338 as compared with 1976. Jamaica doubled its earnings over the 1980-86 period to stand at US$437 million in 1986. At the same time, however, the sector became quite susceptible to occasional slumps in the United States economy. Two months after the October 1987 stock market crash on Wall Street, tourist arrivals in Jamaica declined by 10 percent compared with the previous year.

In an effort to minimize their overall economic vulnerability, the independent nations of the Commonwealth Caribbean and the British crown colony of Montserrat established the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom--see Appendix C) in 1973. Caricom had a number of goals, the most important of which were economic integration through the creation of a regional common market, diversification and specialization of production, and functional cooperation.

The organization's greatest success was in the area of functional cooperation; by the late 1980s, almost two dozen regional institutions had been created, including the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Development Bank, the Caribbean Meteorological Council, the West Indies Shipping Corporation (WISCO), and the Caribbean Marketing Enterprise. Not all members of Caricom felt that they shared equitably in the services provided by these institutions, however. In 1987, for example, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Belize withdrew from WISCO, claiming that the corporation had provided them with few benefits.

Despite success in functional cooperation, Caricom has an uneven track record in achieving economic integration and diversification and specialization. Although members registered substantial increases in intraregional trade during the 1973-81 period, much duplication of production occurred. Over the next five years, intraregional trade declined by more than 50 percent, the result in part of the adoption of protectionist measures by the region's largest consumer, Trinidad and Tobago. In 1987 the cause of regional integration was revived somewhat by Trinidad and Tobago's decision to repeal the provisions in question and by the Caricom members' joint pledge to remove all barriers to intraregional trade by the end of the third quarter of 1988. Even if this commitment is honored, however, depressed demand in the region will inhibit exports.

The most extensive level of cooperation has occurred among seven small islands and island groupings of the Eastern Caribbean (see Glossary). The seven--Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines--have a long history of integration that includes a common market, shared currency, and joint supreme court. In 1981 they formed the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS--see Glossary) as a Caricom associate institution to provide for enhanced economic, foreign policy, and defense cooperation. In May 1987 OECS leaders announced an agreement in principle to form one nation and called for referenda to be held on each island to approve or reject the proposed union. The original plan actually envisaged two separate votes: the first, scheduled for mid-1988, to determine whether unification was desired, and a subsequent ballot the following year to specify the kind of government of the new state. If approved, the union would be established in late 1989 or early 1990.

The fate of the proposed OECS political union remained uncertain as of May 1988. Although Antigua and Barbuda's prime minister Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr., announced his opposition to the plan in July 1987, the other six heads of government continued to support unification. Nonetheless, these leaders resisted demands from ten opposition parties to provide specific details of the proposed venture prior to the first vote. This resistance perhaps stemmed from the leaders' perception that most islanders favored unification in some form; indeed, even the opposition parties-- under the banner of the Standing Committee of Popular Democratic Parties of the Eastern Caribbean (SCOPE)--felt compelled to endorse the idea of union. Still, SCOPE and others raised many issues that needed to be resolved. How much political authority would the six states retain under an OECS government? Would the states be granted equal representation in one of the houses of an OECS parliament? Would civil service employees be subject to transfer anywhere in the new state? Would a uniform wage structure be enacted for these employees? Would Nevisians continue to have local autonomy and a right of secession? Would Montserratians support independence? Thus, a positive vote in the first referenda might lead to contentious debates in the Eastern Caribbean in 1989.

Dynamic political activity was also in evidence in early 1988 in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Trinidad and Tobago. In March 1988 the People's Democratic Movement (PDM) crushed the Progressive National Party (PNP) in parliamentary elections in the Turks and Caicos, winning eleven of thirteen seats; PDM leader Oswald Skippings became the islands' chief minister. The elections were the first held in the Turks and Caicos since the British imposed direct British rule on the territory in July 1986 (see British Dependencies: The Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, Government and Politics, ch. 6). That action was taken after a Royal Commission of Inquiry found the chief minister and PNP head, Nathaniel "Bops" Francis, guilty of unconstitutional behavior and ministerial malpractices. Interestingly, the commission also determined that then-PDM deputy leader Skippings was unfit for public office.

The continued decline in 1987 of the economy in Trinidad and Tobago placed considerable strains on the ruling National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). Against a backdrop of sharp reductions in the gross domestic product and in public expenditures, Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson openly feuded with the former leaders of the East Indian-based United Labour Front, one of four political parties that had merged to create the NAR--the others being the Democratic Action Congress (DAC), the Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR), and Tapia House (see Political Dynamics, ch. 3). In November 1987 Robinson fired the minister of works, John Humphrey, for criticizing the government's economic performance. In response, Humphrey accused the prime minister of failing to consult with cabinet members. In January 1988 external affairs minister and NAR deputy leader Basdeo Panday, public utilities minister Kelvin Ramnath, and junior finance minister Trevor Sudama participated in a meeting of over 100 NAR dissidents seeking Robinson's ouster; the prime minister dismissed the three from his cabinet the following month. Although each side accused the other of trying to divide the nation between blacks and East Indians, neither called for the breakup of NAR. All of the sacked ministers remained as NAR members of the House of Representatives; Panday also resumed his duties as president of the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union.

Thus, the Commonwealth Caribbean islands offer a study in contrast, and sometimes conflict, within their individual boundaries and among themselves. A region gifted by abundant natural beauty and a pleasant climate, it looks to North America to generate increasing tourist dollars. Yet the islands also seek to maintain their independence from North American and West European dominance. Beset by internal bickering, the region nevertheless has seen economic interdependency blossom among some of its parts. Although distinct from Latin America, it suffers from some of the same ills, including the infiltration of the drug trade into its politics. It is a region that could be on the brink of true cooperation or on the path of further disunity.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress