The Caribbean is a disparate collection of peoples, languages and cultures stretching over 1000 miles from Guyana on the northeast hump of South America to the Bahamas off the coast of Florida. Although divided by language, colonialism and the sea itself, the region is united in its history of slavery and the plantation economy. Agriculture is still a main income earner, especially sugar, bananas, spices and tropical fruits. However, food imports continue to exceed exports. Since 1950, bauxite in Jamaica and Guyana and oil in Trinidad have become important sources of foreign exchange. As has tourism in most of the islands.
The English-speaking Caribbean is dwarfed both in size and population by French and Spanish-speaking islands. There are nearly 20 million people in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Haiti has another five million. In total that is five times the population of the English Caribbean.
Over 40% of those under 25 are without work.*
Over two-thirds of the Caribbean’s Gross Domestic Product relates to imports and exports - one of the highest rates in the world.
Mass tourism came to the Caribbean in the 1950s. Today there are few islands not angling for a slice of the tourist dollar. In the Bahamas, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Antigua and others tourism accounts for more than 50 per cent of the GNP. Even socialist Cuba and Grenada are actively seeking more tourists with the belief that the inevitable tensions between rich foreign visitors and poor local residents can be reduced - a conviction based more on the need for foreign exchange than the likelihood of success.
At a glance
The people of the Caribbean are among the most ethnically diverse in the world. Descendents of former black slaves are the majority in most islands. But there are also surprisingly large numbers of whites, some descended from original settlers and others from more recent arrivals - especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
East Indians, Chinese and Portuguese all came as indentured labourers in the late 1800s. Today East Indians are half the population of Trinidad and Guyana. Small pockets of racially mixed people occur in all the islands. No pure Carib Indian communities survive, but there are indigenous peoples in Surinam and Guyana. Languages spoken include Spanish, French, English, Hindi and dozens of local dialects loosely called Creole.