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  • The Caribbean:Democracy Adrift?
  • Daniel P. Erikson (bio) and Adam Minson (bio)

Hurricane season arrived early this year in the Caribbean, when two record-breaking storms ripped across vulnerable island nations and left a trail of devastation in their wake. By mid-July, the one-two punch of hurricanes Dennis and Emily had killed several dozen people in Haiti, caused widespread flooding in Jamaica, and claimed 16 lives in Cuba. As the storms continued on toward North American shores, the estimated cost of restoring damaged property in the Caribbean ranged into the billions of dollars. Due to the ferocity of recent annual hurricane seasons, the small, mainly English-speaking democracies that make up the majority of Caribbean countries have begun to take the precautions necessary to minimize the impact of natural disasters. While dealing with this arduous task, governments also face the challenge of ensuring their countries' economic well-being and political stability.

Many Caribbean nations have long taken pride in the strength of their political institutions and democratic traditions. Of the 15 countries that make up the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom), a regional organization for trade and cooperation founded in 1973, only three—Grenada, Haiti, and Suriname—have experienced unconstitutional changes in government or external military interventions. In fact, most member countries have experienced peaceful transfers of power from ruling party to opposition and back again. During the last three decades, as much of the rest of Latin America shifted from military rule to democracy only to see democratic governments collapse under popular discontent, Caribbean democracies have remained comparatively stable and well functioning. Yet in many of these countries, unease lurks below the surface. [End Page 159]

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Figure 1.

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In the Caricom nations, ranging from relatively large Trinidad and Tobago to tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there is concern that these small, vulnerable states are facing new and unprecedented challenges. Some leaders blame the region's woeson globalization and the indifference of larger powers. In 2001, St. Lucia's Prime Minister Kenny Anthony stated, "Our democratic traditions are being challenged, not by internal policy failures but by the effects of external change on our socioeconomic and political traditions."1 These unwelcome shifts include the dismantling of longstanding international-trade preferences for the Caribbean; the corrosive presence of the South American drug trade through the island corridor; and the rise of powerful gangs, fueled in some instances by criminal deportees from the United States and Europe. Other leaders recognize that internal factors also play a role. In 2002, the assistant secretary-general of Caricom noted, "Quality-of-politics issues such as accountability, integrity, tolerance, respect for diversity, responsiveness of governments and public participation in decision making, have emerged as powerful citizen concerns to which our governments will have to respond."2

If they seek positive models in the region, the small democracies of the Caribbean can find scant comfort in their larger neighbors. In communist Cuba, Fidel Castro continues his untrammeled rule, while nearby Haiti has descended into a political and economic morass. Even the Dominican Republic, which experienced a decade of record growth in the 1990s, suffered a sudden economic collapse in 2003 and remains much poorer than most Caricom members.

Jamaica's Lament

Jamaica is a bellwether state in the Caribbean. With 2.7 million people, it is the region's most populous English-speaking country. It became independent in 1962, earlier than most other Caricom member states. Jamaica's relatively high levels of public health and education, along with its vibrant cultural industry and reputation as a tourist destination, provoke the envy of many of its neighbors. Indeed, the country ranks as one of the most influential actors in the region.

Jamaica's recent political history has been characterized by an ongoing rivalry between the left-of-center People's National Party (PNP), long dominated by the late Michael Manley, and the more conservative Jamaican Labor Party, whose longtime leader was Edward Seaga. In the 1970s, the two parties developed sets of urban garrisons that by means fair and foul strove to bring their preferred candidates to power. The victor would share the spoils...