The Caribbean is a Sea of Islands

Published on May 19, 2014

The Caribbean Sea comprises more than 700 major islands. While most of the larger ones, like Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola (divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) are independent, many of the smaller ones remain non-sovereign entities.

Integral parts of France as départements d’outre-mer (overseas departments) with full rights of citizenship, the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are represented in the French parliament and, as part of the European Union (EU), use the euro as their currency.

They are relatively large: Guadeloupe has an area of 1,628 square kilometres and a population of 405,739 inhabitants, while Martinique is 1,128 square kilometres in size, with a population of 386,486.   

The population of Guadeloupe is mainly of African or mixed descent, speaking French and Antillean Creole. Martinique’s demographics are similar.

France also governs Saint-Barthélemy and part of Saint-Martin; they are known as collectivités d’outre-mer (overseas collectivities) and are also part of metropolitan France and the EU.

The other half of Saint-Martin, known as Sint Maarten, is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and therefore also in the EU. The population of the entire island is 77,741, with 40,917 living on the Dutch side, and 37,429 on the French side.

Other Dutch jurisdictions in the kingdom (and in the EU) are Aruba and Curacao, which are officially called autonomous countries and have a status equal to that of the European Netherlands itself; and Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius, known collectively as the Caribbean Netherlands, which are part of the Netherlands proper and governed as ordinary municipalities of the metropolitan country.

The collective population of Aruba and Curacao numbers 249,318; the three smaller island municipalize have 16,912 inhabitants. Dutch is an official language throughout the Dutch islands, but Papiamento, a creole language with African, Portuguese, and Spanish roots, is also recognized on Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.

None of the non-sovereign British islands in the Caribbean are formal parts of the United Kingdom, though their residents are British citizens. Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands are all British Overseas Territories. As such they are members of the Commonwealth of Nations via the United Kingdom, rather than in their own right.

While defence and foreign affairs are handled by Great Britain, they otherwise have considerably autonomy, including their own governments, currencies, and economic structures. The constitutions of the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat afford greater autonomy than those of Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

This has enabled Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, with a combined population of some 130,000 residents, mostly of African heritage, to become tax havens and offshore financial centres. The Cayman Islands have more registered businesses than people.

An exception to this is Montserrat, which has been devastated by volcanic eruptions in recent years; its population declined from 13,000 in 1994 to 5,879 today. Much of the island is now uninhabitable and its economy has yet to recover.

The United States Virgin Islands of Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas have a combined population of 106,405, mostly people of African descent. As an “unincorporated United States territory,” its residents are American citizens, but cannot vote in presidential elections. The islands are self-governing, with an elected territorial governor and legislature.

In the early 1980s, there was some support for sovereignty in both Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands, while Curacao has a pro-independence party. Guadeloupe saw the most militant pro-independence action with violence occurring periodically in the 1970s and early 1980s, leading to a further devolution of powers to it and Martinique from the French government, including a “cultural right to difference.”

The vast majority of the citizens of all these small islands appear to be satisfied with their non-sovereign status. They prefer the benign relationship with their metropole (which includes monetary transfers) to the alternative of full independence, a situation in which they would be more vulnerable, and responsible for their own economic self-sufficiency and military security.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.