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Caribbean Politics: A Matter of Diversity


Paul Sutton

The Caribbean is a region of immense political diversity. In its comparatively small area there exist established liberal democracies, overseas territories variously associated with the United States and European countries, “fragile” liberal democracies emerging from a recent authoritarian past, a “failed” state in Haiti, and one of the world’s last remaining communist states in Cuba. Defining the region in its widest sense to include the “rim” countries of Belize, Guyana, and Suriname, and the territory of French Guiana, it comprises sixteen independent countries and thirteen distinct “associated” or “dependent” territories. The size of political jurisdiction varies from Cuba, with more than ten million inhabitants, to Anguilla, with its ten thousand people. The per capita income includes some of the world’s richest developing states and one of the world’s poorest countries, Haiti.

Such political diversity makes it extremely difficult to make general statements on politics and political systems that are true for every country within the region. This is compounded by the pervasiveness of an insularity that causes each island to assert its differences from its neighbors; this is true even of countries that are conventionally grouped together, such as the Commonwealth Caribbean (all former or existing colonies of Britain).
The difficulty is further exacerbated by the strength of the “metropolitan” connection, which causes the countries to look outward rather than inward, placing more emphasis on cooperation with Europe and North America than cooperation among themselves.

A common Caribbean identity and common Caribbean interests are accordingly hard to find. Although there are formal intergovernmental associations that seek to promote the region, such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the recently formed Association for Caribbean States (ACS), they do not encompass every Caribbean state or
“associated/dependent territory.”’ In short, the Caribbean is fragmented and divided politically—a region that shares a common past and a common contemporary predicament, but in which political community remains firmly anchored to island and enclave.


A Common Past

How is this to be explained? The starting point, as so often in political analysis, is history. In the Caribbean, the weight of history has been greater than anywhere else in the developing world, and the colonial impress more enduring. It must not be forgotten that the first footfall of Columbus in America was in the Caribbean, and that parts of the Caribbean remain linked to Europe today. Bermuda has been a British colony since 1609; Curaçao a Dutch possession since 1634; and Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana—all former French colonies over hundreds of years—have, since 1946, been constitutionally départements of France. Recently independent countries such as Barbados (1966) and St. Kitts-Nevis (1983) were ruled by Britain for more than 300 years. Countries that gained their independence earlier, such as the Dominican Republic (1844) and Cuba (1902), had even longer experiences of Spanish rule.

The legacies of such colonial rule can be found in the political cultures and formal administrative rules and regulations that give shape to political life throughout the Caribbean. In the former British Caribbean, for example, all countries are governed through a modified form of the British “Westminster” system in which institutions and procedures first developed in Britain have been transplanted and adapted to Caribbean realities. The same applies elsewhere, making it easy to determine in any independent Caribbean country the former colonial rulers. It even holds true in places where there was more than one former colonial master—for example, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago. It is likewise true for Cuba and Haiti, where violent revolutions ruptured embedded colonial rule.

The colonial impress has in turn shaped distinctive political regimes. The two types most often contrasted are the authoritarian regimes that have dominated in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, and the democratic regimes to be found in the English-speaking Caribbean. The former have allowed military rule and personalist dictatorship to flourish, and this “caudillo” tradition remains strong, as personified today in the rule of Fidel Castro in Cuba. In Haiti, military rule and dictatorship have been the normal forms of government, and have directly contributed to the endemic poverty to be found throughout the country. The Dominican Republic has also had long periods of dictatorial and oligarchical rule, although since the mid-1960s there has been a gradual transformation of the political system resulting in the development of political institutions and the emergence of competitive democratic electoral politics. The Dominican Republic can now be classed as a democracy, and its recent history points to the possibility of making a successful transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime in the Caribbean.

In contrast, the English-speaking Caribbean has emerged as the most democratic region in the developing world. More than 125 general elections have been held in the independent states of the Commonwealth Caribbean since the first vote under universal suffrage was held in Jamaica in 1944. Every Commonwealth country in the region has experienced a change of government as a result of elections. Such elections have generally been free and fair, and the government of the day has been accorded a high measure of legitimacy. The result in most countries has been the institutionalization of democratic politics in which political rights and political participation are secured, and in which political issues are widely discussed.

This is not to say that the political systems in the English-speaking countries are untroubled by divisive issues. In Guyana and in Trinidad and Tobago, there has been a history of political tension between those of African descent and those of East Indian descent. Jamaica continues to be marked by wide divisions between its “haves” and “have nots” that lead to occasional outbursts of political violence. But on the whole, the Commonwealth Caribbean has a high incidence of political stability and an enviable record of good governance.

Similar points could be made about the various “dependent” and “associated” territories. Nearly all of them have put in place democratic practices and politics, while civil liberties have been underwritten by the continuing metropolitan connection. This, in turn, has prompted a common concern with “status,” that is, with what the relationship should be between the Caribbean territory and its distant metropolitan partner. It is a central and continuing theme of relations between Puerto Rico and the United States and, given the almost equal division in Puerto Rico between those who want to continue with the existing “associate” status and those who wish to see a change (for statehood or independence), this issue is set to dominate the agenda in the future.

Those living in the British and Dutch overseas territories in the Caribbean have also seen some administrative modifications in their relations with Britain and the Netherlands. These have confirmed their interest in strengthening the metropolitan link, thus weakening the move to independence, which has become virtually nonexistent in recent years. A similar picture applies to the French départements, where political movements seeking greater autonomy from France have been limited in their political effect. The Caribbean is thus set to continue as a region in which external political influences, which have done much to shape the past, will continue to exercise an influence in the future.

The most important external influence throughout the twentieth century was the United States. In the early years of the century, it acquired Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as occupying Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic for varying lengths of time. Following the Second World War, U.S. influence spread to the British colonial territories. Upon gaining independence, these countries sought a closer relationship with the
United States, primarily for economic and security advantages. At the same time, the United States—in its competition with the former USSR and its current position as world leader—has sought to ensure that the Caribbean region remain firmly locked into its sphere of influence. The interventions in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and in Grenada in 1983 were part of this strategy, as is the continuing policy of isolation and containment of Cuba under Castro. The result has been an overwhelming U.S. presence in the region, sometimes challenged by nationalist movements and governments, but generally accepted as inevitable and even beneficial. The end of the Cold War has seen a reduction of U.S. interest in the Caribbean, and a redirection of its interests in the region toward combating drug trafficking and controlling migration—both important issues in the U.S. domestic agenda.


Diverse Cultures and Politics

Although external influences remain important—and on occasion even overwhelming—the political life of the Caribbean region today is largely determined by internal factors. One of the most important is the differential impact of social classes and ethnic groups. Variety here is of the essence, as there are at least four broad types of Caribbean societies, but with no clear correspondence between political regime and social structure. Following a typology developed by Colin Clarke,1 these broad categories are:

Plural-stratified societies. This includes former British colonies that are now independent liberal democracies, such as Jamaica and the small states of the eastern Caribbean, the “associated” and “dependent” liberal democracies in the French départements and the Netherlands Antilles, and the “failed” state of Haiti.

Plural-segmented societies. This includes Trinidad and Tobago and Belize, which have robust and established liberal democracies, and Guyana and Suriname, both of which have a chequered recent past embracing authoritarianism and state socialism, and are now “fragile” liberal democracies.

Class-stratified societies. This includes a communist state in Cuba, an “associated” liberal democratic state in Puerto Rico, and an emergent liberal democracy in the Dominican Republic.

“Folk” societies. This includes a scattering of individual islands characterized by highly personalist politics and a dependent relationship with a larger political jurisdiction, including Saba (Netherlands Antilles), Desirade (Guadeloupe), Barbuda (Antigua) and Anguilla (British Overseas Territory).

Adding to this complicated picture are the very different political styles and programmes of the multitude of political leaders who compete for office. All Caribbean countries can point to at least one, and many to several, political personalities who have dominated politics in the recent past or continue to do so today. They include Juan Bosch and Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga in Jamaica, Aimé Césaire in Martinique, Luis Munoz Marin in Puerto Rico, and, of course, Fidel Castro in Cuba.2 While the dominance of such personalities can be a matter of size, with the smallest countries experiencing the greatest impact of personality, the fact that a highly personalist form of politics is found everywhere in the region points to social and cultural explanations for this phenomenon. Decisive political leadership appears to be a feature much admired by electorates, or feared in dictatorships, throughout the Caribbean.


Community vs. Insularity

Ultimately, then, political life and political systems in the Caribbean have to be understood in terms of individual countries and territories, however small. The insularity of the islands and enclaves, the various historical legacies, the complex mix of social structures, and the dominance of political personality provide each country with a stamp of authenticity that renders it unique. At the same time, there exists an intangible sense of a wider Caribbean “community” that is often invoked and occasionally provides a spur to action. The most recent manifestation of this approach is the creation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) in 1994, following an initiative taken by the leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The newer ACS is open to all Caribbean countries (independent, “associated” and “dependent”), plus mainland countries in Central America and countries with Caribbean coastlines in South America. It is therefore a wider grouping than that usually seen in the Caribbean, and this has led to problems in its operations. It has been impossible to agree upon a political programme or agenda, and the most successful areas of action have been those where easily defined interests coincide—for example, tourism, transport, disaster management, and communication and information networks. Its potential has so far been limited by the desire of individual Caribbean states to retain sovereignty and freedom of action, and the fact that although Caribbean states would clearly benefit from closer cooperation, most lack the political will to pursue such a path vigorously.

The immediate political future of the Caribbean is thus one of individual,
fragmented states. Some parts of the region—for example the English-speaking states in CARICOM—will likely draw closer together, but political union is a long way off even among those states that are similar in size and social structure, such as the former British colonies in the eastern Caribbean. In choosing to remain apart, most Caribbean countries are leaving themselves exposed to powerful economic and political forces they can do little to resist—although Cuba shows that resistance is possible, even under the most difficult conditions.

Among the most important forces affecting the Caribbean in recent years have been the global economic forces shaping new trade agendas in Europe and the Americas, which are eroding the preferential trade advantages most Caribbean states have relied upon for sustaining their commodity exports; and the new thrust of global competitiveness, which especially disadvantages the smaller and more underdeveloped Caribbean states in terms of easily obtaining foreign investment and international finance. The economic future for the majority of states is uncertain, and the development prospects for some of them—such as the small banana-producing countries of the eastern Caribbean as well as Guyana, Haiti, and Suriname—are bleak.

These effects of globalization may have political consequences in increased political instability and new threats to U.S. security through increased drug trafficking and higher levels of illegal immigration. Included in this scenario is Cuba, where major economic restructuring has not been matched by an equivalent move to politically reform the communist state. The disjunction of the two becomes daily more acute, and with it, the risk of breakdown in Cuba and ill-considered U.S. action that is likely to make matters worse.

In conclusion, the Caribbean presents a political picture of great diversity. There are common themes and shared experiences that bring the countries together, but much politically that pulls them apart. History and the impact of divisive external factors explain some features of the situation, but do not tell the whole story. Politicians and islands delight in being different, and among those who migrate to the metropolitan centers of the United States, Canada, and the European Union, as well as those who remain in their islands and enclaves, there is a strong attachment to place.

The political systems of the region reflect local factors more than any other, so that even in countries as small as St. Kitts-Nevis (42,000 people), the Nevisians (8,000) have recently sought greater autonomy, even though they are only two miles across the sea from St. Kitts. This may be hard to grasp in a large country like the United States. But it is the essence of Caribbean politics and ensures that in the foreseeable future, there will be no single Caribbean state, but a multiplicity of political regimes and vibrantly different forms of political life from one country to another in the region.



1. Colin Clarke, ed., Society and Politics in the Caribbean (Basingstoke, England: St Antony’s/Macmillan, 1991), Introduction.

2. Additional examples include: Vere Bird in Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Lynden Pindling in the Bahamas, “Tom” Adams and Errol Barrow in Barbados, George Price in Belize, Dame Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Sir Eric Gairy and Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan in Guyana, Robert Bradshaw in St Kitts, John Compton in St. Lucia, Sir “Son” Mitchell in St. Vincent, Claude Wathey in Saint Maarten (Netherlands Antilles), Desi Bouterse in Suriname, Dr. Eric Williams in Trinidad and Tobago, and Lavitty Stoutt in the British Virgin Islands.


Paul Sutton is a professor of politics at Hull University in Hull, England.