Amidst the general worsening of East-West relations, and the sharply antagonistic policy of the usa towards the Third World, a new political situation has emerged in the Caribbean. The region itself has a population of around twenty-nine millions, and comprises thirteen independent island states, numerous European and American colonies, and three mainland enclaves that are separated from the Spanish-speaking continent by reason of history and geography.footnote1 Historically, the Caribbean islands, and particularly those speaking English, Dutch and French, have felt distinct from the conflicts of Central and South America. Yet many of the islands and Central American states underwent a common subjection to us military occupation earlier in this century, and today, by reason of us pressure and revolutionary co-operation alike, the Caribbean is being to a considerable degree drawn into the conflicts that are raging in Central America itself. One sign of this new situation has been the attempt by Reagan to evolve an overt combined military-economic approach to the area, represented by a series of air and naval manoeuvres held since his accession to office, and by the Caribbean Basin Initiative announced in October 1981. The former serves to menace the independent states of the region, the latter to provide economic incentives to the capitalist states of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean region through financial aid and tariff reductions. Another index has been the increase of covert activity in the region by the revamped cia—involving military activity in Central America, harassment of Cuba and Grenada, the islands defying us control, and threats against Surinam. But this imperialist attack from without coincides with an aggravated situation within the states of the Caribbean, brought on by the impact of world recession and the spread of new forms of popular resistance in states long supposed to be characterized by tranquil social and political conditions. The ideology of the Caribbean, of tourist paradise, calypso colonies and rum islands, is an index of the metropolitan image of the region and the subordinate status long allocated to it. Yet, both historically and in the contemporary period, it is profoundly false in the manner in which it masks the conflicts that endure, and persistently erupt, within these societies.

The new situation in the Caribbean involves a sustained challenge to the post-colonial system created over recent decades. This system was marked by, first, a gradualist transfer of power to independent states, a process overshadowed and guaranteed by the passing of strategic responsibility from European colonial powers to the usa. Secondly, it involved an economic restructuring, as the old economic system based on sugar, in decline from the early nineteenth century onwards, was replaced by a new one based on tourism, oil processing and bauxite mining, and financial flows, both through offshore banking operations and emigrants’ remittances. Thirdly, the post-colonial stability precluded a Caribbean patriotism: in some islands this meant continued mass support for colonial and dependent status; in others, political independence accompanied by continued affection on the part of the ruling groups for the cultural norms of the former colonial power. In all, however, the maintenance of links with remote dominant powers went together with hostility to fellow islands in the region, and a sustained division between the different linguistic groupings bequeathed by colonialism. About seventeen million of the Caribbean’s twenty-nine million people are Spanish-speaking, six million are French-speaking, another five million English-speaking, and another half-million speak Dutch or its derivatives. Yet while in metropolitan Europe new forms of inter-state collaboration have developed amongst nation states that have long been established, the new states of the Caribbean have so far belied the hopes of those who want to see a federal system emerge, even within specific linguistic groupings. The loyalty to particular island identities has proved stronger than assertions of identity based on a common history of slavery, or a common contemporary experience of domination by the United States.footnote2

The conflicts of the current Cold War have in some measure challenged these foundations of the post-colonial order: resistance to the usa, economic recession, and tendencies towards a more assertive, radical, panCaribbean political co-operation are among its leading characteristics. But the Second Cold War’s Caribbean dimension also involves a historical return—namely, the breaking down of that isolation of the region from the mainstream of world politics, and a return to what were in the earlier centuries of colonial rule the two hallmarks of the Caribbean’s history: social revolt from within, and sustained international competition from without.

Of all the regions of the world subjected to colonialism, the Caribbean saw the most brutal forms of domination: first, from the 1490s onwards, the almost complete liquidation of the native Amerindian population; then, in a massive move to provide the local white settler communities with a new labour force from the sixteenth century onwards, the creation and sustenance for over two centuries of the most oppressive social system created by imperialism, slavery. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 in the British colonies, and the banning of the ownership of slaves after 1834—a process followed in the possessions of the other European states—was accompanied by the continued importance of the region to imperialism throughout the nineteenth century, as the site of the modernized sugar plantations that sustained the Caribbean’s role in the accumulation of imperial wealth in Britain, France, Holland and Spain.

The importance of the Caribbean to imperialism in its classic period was reflected in the conflicts that it generated.footnote3 These were, on the one hand, inter-imperialist conflicts that raged from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century. Virtually none of the Caribbean islands endured continual rule by one colonial power: only Barbados, colonized by Britain from 1627 until independence in 1966, is an exception. All of the others changed hands as rival European powers fought for naval and commercial supremacy. Then the parvenu predator, us imperialism, seized the Spanish possessions of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, and in 1917 purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark. These conflicts between rival dominators overlapped with those within the island societies themselves: for, despite the image of tropical peace, the Caribbean islands have seen immense social conflicts during the past three centuries. There were the slave revolts of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the growth of free ex-slave communities as alternative poles to the regimented slave societies. Then, in the nineteenth century, came the great nationalist revolts, the most momentous of the whole history of colonial revolt in that century: first, the slave revolt of Saint Dominque of 1791, which in 1804 established the first independent state in the non-white colonial world (Haiti); then the major nationalist upheavals of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 1868 and 1896 revolts, which finally drove Spain from the New World after four centuries of exploitation. These two forms of conflict often intersected: Britain backed the revolt of Spain’s colonies early in the century, the usa that of the late nineteenth. And it was in part through this intersection that the Caribbean underwent its most significant transition in the twentieth century, namely the shift from domination through direct colonialism by a set of distant European states bent on economic exploitation, to an indirect system of neo-colonial rule by the region’s neighbour, the usa, which saw the Caribbean in predominantly strategic terms. It was this transition, completed in the post-1945 period, which the combined tensions of the Second Cold War period have questioned more forcibly than has ever previously been the case.

Having displaced the colonial powers, the usa set about imposing its own system of domination on the islands to its south. For the essence of the us position, expressed in 1823 in the Monroe Doctrine, was that the Caribbean was an area which fell under us control. Until 1861, Washington refused to recognize independent Haiti. Such was this policy that the years from 1898 onwards saw a series of us interventions and occupations of the Caribbean and Central American states: of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, as well as the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. In some cases, us troops withdrew after suppression of local resistance and the creation of client regimes on site—Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba. In others the pattern was one of permanent us occupation—Puerto Rico, Panama Canal Zone, Guantanamo. Thus, well before the decolonization process began in the remaining British, French and Dutch colonies, the usa had established itself as the dominant power in the Caribbean and as controller of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the four major countries that made up two-thirds of the region’s population. The pattern of transferred authority seen in Greece, the Middle East and South-East Asia in the post-1945 period was completed in the Caribbean by the end of the First World War.

The Second World War took this process of transfer a stage further. Just prior to 1939 the impact of the depression had led to the first major social upheavals of this century in the English-speaking Caribbean, the mass strikes in St Kitts, Trinidad, Jamaica and most other islands in 1937–8.footnote4 But these were suppressed, and during the Second World War the British ceded significant base rights to the usa in a number of their western hemisphere colonies (Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad). In the post-war period, as the First Cold War was gathering force, Britain and the usa faced local challenges to their hegemony and took measures to ensure they did not develop. Thus the election of a Marxist government in the British colony of Guyana in 1953, run by Cheddi Jagan of the People’s Progressive Party, was overruled by London and Jagan dismissed. A year later, in 1954, the cia intervened in Guatemala to oust the Arbenz government that had been elected there, and flew nuclear weapons to neighbouring Honduras to reassure their allies. The other challenges to the established regimes in the region were also apparently contained. The October 1950 armed nationalist uprising in Puerto Rico was crushed by the National Guard and the us air force. As the First Cold War drew to a close, strategic planners in the usa and Britain might have been able to feel relieved that the conflicts of the region had been controlled and localized. They had been kept separate from the East-West conflict that had now come to dominate world politics. Yet, at the very moment that Cold War I began to end, with the signing of the armistice in Korea on 27 July 1953, an apparently subaltern event on the other side of the world, where it was still 26 July, was to presage a rather different future for the Caribbean and, indeed, the world—the attack on a barracks in eastern Cuba by a handful of armed radicals, under the leadership of an unknown lawyer, Fidel Castro.