Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Caribbean: An Unsettling Debate

What/where is the Caribbean?  Yes, that is a valid question.  Those in the know, know why.

by Nick Marshall
Features Writer

Monique S. Simón 
Features Editor

The ongoing frustrations for those trying to establish a single Caribbean political identity point is finding a fixed definition of its very locale: Where exactly is the Caribbean?   Most people have no difficulty identifying what the Caribbean looks like, sounds like, and even feels like, but the agreement ends when a map is produced. 
"Crystal Globe" 
by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot
Free Digital Photos.NET

Does it include Guyana, which supplies one of the pillars of the West Indies cricket team, or Belize, which provides one of the highlights of a Western Caribbean cruise? Should it even extend to Colombia and Venezuela, which nestle along the Caribbean Sea?

Undisputed on the list are the islands stretching in an elegant chain from Cuba in the North to Trinidad in the South. While the shorelines are similar, the topography varies between the flat, parched scrubland of coral islands such as Anguilla to the soaring, lush volcanic peaks of Dominica and St. Lucia in the Windwards. These are islands which, for the most part, have sparse populations scattered around modest settlements; only the Greater Antilles nations of Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico and Haiti nurture metropolises with populations above a million, and even then only five in total. 

Culturally, though, several mainland countries bordering the Caribbean Sea lay a claim to a Caribbean identity.  In the case of Surinam(e), French Guiana and Guyana, the culture shares clear ties with their Dutch, French and British island counterparts. Historically, there has been consistent migration between the mainland and the islands--the unity & resulting open ports provided by the ruling Colonial power. 

"Pier Stilts on Beach"
by Artur84
The real link, however, dates back over 1,500 years, when Arawak Amerindians from South America first migrated northwards, as far as the Bahamas. These Amerindian* settlers became the Taino and Lucayan peoples of the Dominican Republic and Bahamas; evidence of Arawak populations is scattered across the islands, and in most cases provides the pre-Columbian island names. 

Later, the Carib/Kalina people from coastal South America conquered the Southern Caribbean and the Leewards, practically annihilating the Taino population. Today, island Carib populations have dwindled, reduced to a community in Dominica. The most potent legacy is the foods they brought with them which were not indigenous to the Caribbean but have come to symbolize its cuisine: cassava, yam, and sweetpotato** in particular. 
"Tamarillo and Cassava Fruits" 
by Africa
On a political level, the closest to a single organization is CARICOM, based in Guyana. This federation encompasses 15 member states spanning English, Dutch, Spanish and French speaking islands. Similarly, the Association of Caribbean States covers 25 member states, including Central American nations. Overall, the Caribbean region comprises 13 independent island countries and numerous French, Dutch, British and US overseas territories and dependencies.

Head farther west across the Caribbean Sea and the Central and South American land mass blends Caribbean and Latin influences. Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama all evoke the Caribbean, but lack the self-contained identity of the islands. Culturally, only the Garifuna communities of Honduras and Nicaragua are true counterparts of the islands, with high proportions of Anglophone speakers distinct from the indigenous population. 

The Caribbean, then, is as much an abstract entity as a geographical or political one. Are the significant ex-pat Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Dominicano communities of New York, London and Toronto any less Caribbean than the vast swathes of their home islands converted into international vacation resorts? Hardly. Arguably, the further one is from the homeland, the more fiercely one holds onto the original culture. The Caribbean diaspora is broad and evolving. Conventional parameters no longer define it accurately. 
Nick Marshall is a the editor of the Caribbean Culture Site for Bella Online.  Originally from the UK, he currently resides in St. Maarten, Caribbean where he has worked as a journalist and teacher.  Formerly the editor of a Caribbean sailing magazine, Mr. Marshall has traveled through out 18 of the islands of the Caribbean region.   
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