Episode 41. Who Controls the Caribbean?
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In 1823 US President James Monroe declared "The Monroe Doctrine", which declared that the Western hemisphere would be the backyard of the United States. That doctrine is now almost 200 years old and the world is a very different place. European powers such as the Netherlands, UK and France all hold colonies in the region; and other players such as Venezuela and Cuba are putting forward competition as well. The real threat for the US though, may come from outside powers shopping around for strategic footholds in an area the US regularly overlooks.
9th President of Fort Valley State University
Senior Associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies
Trusted expert on the Caribbean for bodies including the Foreign Ministry of Canada and the US Congress.
Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council for the Caribbean Initiative
Founder of the Green Market in Trinidad and Tobago
International lawyer and social entrepreneur with longstanding expertise in sustainable development.
Associate Fellow for the US Americas program at Chatham House, specialising in the Caribbean and Latin America
Former Director of Latin American Studies at London University
Former Director of Chatham House
Author of over 20 books on the geopolitics of the Americas
Part 1: Trouble in the Backyard (1:51)
Various outside powers have held long-standing economic and colonial interests in the Caribbean, historically revolving around the trade in sugar and slaves, and to this day small possessions remain in the hands of the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and the USA. Even amongst fully independent states, strong political ties remain between current governments and the governments in their colonial history, most notably the British Commonwealth. Ivelaw Griffiths explains for us these ties between Caribbean and European states and the relationships which underpin them.
Puerto Rico is one of the largest colonial zones remaining in the region, Griffiths takes us through the complex relationship between the Puerto Ricans and the American Federal Government, in particular the desire to retain Spanish as the official language and the limitations placed upon Puerto Rican citizens, specifically their inability to vote in federal elections without giving up their local identity.
Venezuela is another Caribbean-adjacent state with territorial interests, though theirs are far less well established. Most relevantly we look at the dispute over the status of Bird Island (Isla de Aves), as well as the sometimes rocky relationship between it and its neighbours such as Trinidad and Guyana. We discuss these tensions and the delicate balance between various Latin American and Caribbean nations own territorial disputes.
We discuss the complex and tragic history of Haiti, its origins in the world’s only slave revolution, and the reaction of other powers at the time. Griffiths argues that the “albatross around its neck”, the reparations demanded of Haiti by France ensured it remained impoverished and politically isolated in its youth, as compared to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, an condition exacerbated by the frequent bouts of internecine conflict amongst Haiti’s political class.
Part 2: A Shrinking Shoreline (21:03)
With Vicki Assevero we discuss the American Monroe Doctrine, in which the USA considered the Caribbean and Latin America to be of special importance to its interest, and warned other powers to withdraw or limit their involvement. We discuss the historical context of the Doctrine, the actions taken by the United States under its logic, and its ongoing legacy.
The countries within the Caribbean are, on the surface, all quite similar to each other, with a similar histories, economies, and paths of development. We discuss the common regional identity which has developed on the otherwise disparate islands and to a lesser extent the regions facing the sea. After most of the former colonial island states became independent there was speculation that a closer union could be formed, though this has only partially manifested, with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) not even including all states in the region. Assevero asserts that this disunity is driven partially by infrastructural reasons, the physical separation of the many islands from each other; and the competition between the various governments for the favour of outside powers such as the US, Britain and now China.
The largest island in the region, Cuba, is also the most politically isolated; under heavy sanction by the United States since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We discuss the role that the legacy of the Cuban Revolution and the government it produced has on how the USA views Cuba, especially now that the émigré community is an entrenched voice in American political discourse.
Part 3: Trouble in Paradise (36:50)
Unfortunately for countries of the Caribbean, their region hasn’t attracted much outside interest since the end of the Cold War, with the absence of Soviet forces leaving the US as the only major power with any real presence. This has left the region neglected, with only one state in the game, there’s no ability to play countries off each other for benefit. Victor Bulmer-Thomas discusses the legacy of the US’s lack of effective commitment to countries like Haiti, exerting the smallest possible effort to prevent disaster but nothing more; motivated only by the desire to keep other players out, and not seeing any real benefit to investing.
We discuss the influence of outside powers like India, from which a long-standing diasporic community migrated to the formerly British parts of the region, but who doesn’t really seek to get entangled so far from home; and also Russia, who has sought to rebuild the alliances and relationships it once held with Caribbean states, especially Cuba. We also discuss the history and legacy of American interventionism in the region during the Cold War, in particular the 1983 Invasion of Grenada, and how similar events might be received publically if they were to occur today.
We also explore the apparent inaction of Mexico in the region, despite its size and proximity to the region. Bulmer-Thomas explains that reluctance this stems from its own history as a colony, and its long-standing commitment to non-interference, but that it has in fact made significant moves, for example the scheme developed with Venezuela to jointly provide oil to small island nations. It also maintains positive relations with every regional state, including Cuba, and family and economic ties bind it to the region irrevocably.
Finally we discuss the growing economic involvement of China in the region, its investments and political connections, particularly in relation to recognition of Taiwan. Although the spectre of the Cuban Missile Crisis is raised by a potential rival to the USA becoming military emplaced within the region, Bulmer-Thomas concludes that such a confrontation is highly unlikely, that no power would risk such an escalation in the near future, and that none of the Caribbean states are willing to commit themselves against the US so wholly, preferring to maintain a generally neutral posture.
The Red Line's Caribbean Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of the Caribbean
From Slavery to Services
The Caribbean Blue Economy
A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Michael Hansen, Phil, Suzanne D Smith, and Cody M.