The Caribbean is strategically important to the United States although it enjoys a low priority in the overall context of Latin American policy. That situation is unlikely to change barring some dramatic event. Continued disinterest will result in further equivocal engagement. The Nation should adopt a more focused, proactive, and nuanced approach in dealing with the Caribbean Basin. Today U.S. interest centers on three aspects of the area: geography, geoeconomics, and geonarcotics.
The strategic importance of the Caribbean is found in its resources, sea lanes, and security networks. The Caribbean Basin is the source of fuel and nonfuel minerals used in both the defense and civilian sectors. Of particular significance are petroleum and natural gas produced in Barbados, Colombia, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. Moreover, though several countries and U.S. territories in the area do not have energy resources, they offer invaluable refining and transshipment functions (Aruba, Bahamas, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, and U.S. Virgin Islands). Other mineral resources from the Caribbean include bauxite, gold, nickel, copper, cobalt, emeralds, and diamonds.
The Caribbean Basin has two of the world's major choke points, the Panama Canal and the Caribbean Sea. The former links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and saves 8,000 miles and up to 30 days of steaming time. The canal has military and civilian value. And while it is less important to the United States than it was two decades ago, other countries remain very dependent on it, and many, like Chile, Ecuador, and Japan, are militarily or politically important to Washington.
Once ships enter the Atlantic from the canal they must transit Caribbean passages en route to ports of call in the United States, Europe, and Africa. The Florida Strait, Mona Passage, Windward Passage, and Yucatan Channel are the principal lanes.
The Caribbean is also our southern flank. Until a decade ago the United States maintained a considerable military presence throughout the Caribbean, mainly in Puerto Rico at the Atlantic threshold, in Panama at the southern rim, and in Cuba at Guantanamo on the northern perimeter. In 1990, for instance, there were 4,743 military and civilian personnel in Puerto Rico, 20,709 in Panama, and 3,401 in Cuba.
Much has changed since 1990, requiring strategic redesign and force redeployment. Today Puerto Rico is home to fewer forces, and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) relocated from Panama to Miami in September 1997, leaving behind only small components. Guantanamo, long considered to have little strategic value, serves essentially as a political outpost in the last remaining communist bastion in the hemisphere, with about 1,200 military and civilian personnel.
During the 1980s the Soviet presence in Cuba included modern docks and repair facilities, reconnaissance aircraft, and satellite and surveillance capabilities. The 28-square mile base located at Lourdres monitored missile tests, intercepted satellite communications, and relayed microwave communications to diplomatic posts in the Western Hemisphere. The facility was reputedly the largest maintained by the Soviet union abroad. It is still in operation, but not at Cold War levels.
Yet fear of foreign encroachment persists. The United States is concerned about increasing Chinese interest and investment in Panama. Although such strategic affairs may not be crucial to Washington, they affect allies as well as regional stability and security and thus bear watching.
The mixture of geography, economics, and national power in the area exercises influence over trade and investment. For example, the Department of Commerce found that for the four-year period prior to 1988 a total of 646 U.S. companies invested over $1.5 billion in Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) beneficiary countries. …