Democracy and the Caribbean

The Caribbean has seen tremendous outside influence from large and resourceful empires in its recent history. The population of the region was estimated to be below a million before the arrival of Europeans, but the natives were quickly displaced or absorbed by arriving colonialist Europeans and African slaves. In this context, democracy was non-existent with several groups suppressed by the authoritarian monarchies that were in control of the region. Amerindians and Africans were worked tirelessly in the pursuit of precious metals and stones.

The first Caribbean area to gain independence from European domination was Haiti, where a slave revolt that began in 1791, turned into the Haitian Revolution and accomplished the throwing out of the French in 1804. It successfully thwarted successive European efforts to conquer the island.

The year 1821 saw an important turning point in the history of the Caribbean, when Spanish political turmoil enabled Haiti to conquer the rest of Hispaniola. There was also the establishment of the First Mexican Empire and the establishment of Gran Colombia. Governments varied from country to country, with Mexico first a monarchy, then it briefly declared itself a republic and eventually reverted back to imperial status. Gran Colombia implemented an indirect election regime, a presidency and bicameral legislature. However, voting was restricted to landowners with a minimum amount of private property. It was not until after World War II that a number of small islands gained independence, mostly from Great Britain.

The last vestiges of the Spanish Empire collapsed under an ideologically-driven and resource-motivated push by the United States into the Caribbean. Propaganda against the Spanish suppression of Cuban rebels fired up support for military intervention, leading to the Spanish-American War and the conquest of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Cuba gained independence from the United States in 1902, but was subjected to repeated interference by the United States, fueling political instability. As the decades dragged on, the regime became more authoritarian with every new government. The vote was extended to women, but at the same time the rise of communism became widespread. In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the regime of the authoritarian and American-backed government of Fulgencio Batista. Since then, the cold relations between Cuba and the United States have been the source of tremendous tension, namely in the Cuban missile crisis.

As of 2011, Cuba was cited as a consistent offender of human rights and one of the last outposts of communism in the world. The Castro family has maintained power since the revolution, allowing no choice in elections. When Fidel Castro retired from administrative duties, speculation resurfaced as to the possible transition of the country to democracy. Many experts predicted to this to be inevitable, especially because of the stagnant economy, weak social institutions and low standard of living of Cubans.

Puerto Rico provides a question for supporters of democratic rule. There is a question as to whether or not for Puerto Rico to be independent it would have to hold some sort of public referendum on the issue in order to be considered a democracy. It remains a commonwealth and unincorporated territory of the United States. A chance to support independence or statehood by a non-binding referendum in Puerto Rico in 1998 failed to produce a majority for either cause. As a result, Puerto Rico retains both a population and economy bigger than some other states in the union, has a governor and its own legislature, yet it is deprived of many significant rights. While resident Puerto Ricans in the incorporated areas of the United States can vote for the president as American citizens, Puerto Rico's lack of participation in the Electoral College precludes the majority of Puerto Ricans' inclusion in the process. Additionally, the territory has no representation in the United States Congress -- neither in the House of Representatives nor in the Senate. There is apparently growing support for statehood in Puerto Rico, and arguments are made based on the development of Hawaii after its becoming a state.

Political intrigue in Haiti in 1994 prompted American intervention by then President Bill Clinton. In 2010, a disastrous earthquake attracted global attention, prompting calls for either a dismantling of the country altogether as unsustainable or a complete restructuring. Presidential elections were eventually held but did not result in significant change to the aftermath of the natural disaster and its impact on society. Many reports featured commentary emphasizing Haitians' need to govern themselves in the wake of the collapse of much of the country's administrative functioning.

Democracy and the Caribbean: Selected full-text books and articles

Democracy and Human Rights in the Caribbean By Ivelaw L. Griffith; Betty N. Sedoc-Dahlberg Westview Press, 1997
Latin America and the Caribbean in the International System By G. Pope Atkins Westview Press, 1999 (4th edition)
Distant Neighbors in the Caribbean: The Dominican Republic and Jamaica in Comparative Perspective By Richard S. Hillman; Thomas J. D'Agostino; Howard J. Wiarda Praeger Publishers, 1992
Class, State, and Democracy in Jamaica By Carl Stone Praeger Publishers, 1986
Narratives of Resistance: Jamaica, Trinidad, the Caribbean By Brian Meeks University of the West Indies Press, 2000
Modern Political Culture in the Caribbean By Holger Henke; Fred Reno University Press of the West Indies, 2003
New Caribbean Thought: A Reader By Brian Meeks; Folke Lindahl University of the West Indies Press, 2001
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