Behind the Hurricane “Natural” Disaster in the Caribbean: A Brutal History of Colonialism, Slavery, and Imperialist Invasions and Domination

September 11, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


“The Caribbean!” Sun-drenched beaches, blue skies and water, luxurious hotels, and a small army of local people bringing drinks and a smile to tourists relaxing by the pool in places like St. Martin, the Virgin Islands, or Barbados.

“The Caribbean!” A center of finance in countries like the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, or Dominica, where large corporations “headquarter” their business and wealthy individuals park their assets in order to avoid paying taxes.

“The Caribbean”: scene of devastating economic crisis, poverty, and misery in nations like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Each of these images has a certain reality. Each greatly amplifies the vulnerability of the tens of millions of people in the Caribbean to major storms like Irma, which are becoming more powerful and common due to global warming. And each is the product, not of the needs or desires of the people of these islands, but of the over 500-year history of colonial conquest and imperialist domination.

European Conquest

The string of large and small islands in and near the Caribbean Sea were mainly conquered by the Spanish empire in the early 1500s. This was at the beginning of capital accumulation in Europe, and the great powers there were seeking gold and silver to finance trade and early industry. This conquest and looting of the Caribbean (known then as the East Indies) was part of what Karl Marx, the founder of the science of communism, described with sharp irony as “the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

On Hispaniola, where they found gold, Columbus said of the hundreds of thousands of Arawak/Taino people who had long lived there:

When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them. ... Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. [Emphasis added.]

And so they did—not only on Hispaniola, but throughout the Caribbean. Arawak and other native people were worked to death in the mines in massive numbers. When they resisted, repression was savage—a priest wrote that the Spanish “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices of them to test the sharpness of their blades...”

Through murder, being worked to death, disease, and the destruction of their existing agricultural economy, virtually the entire native population—possibly millions—was all but wiped out within a few generations.

But as the Spanish extracted the gold, their power was declining in Europe. Increasingly, rival powers—Britain, France, and Holland—began raiding their ships and colonies in the Caribbean, eventually seizing many of the most important such as Haiti (the western half of Hispaniola), Jamaica, Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Martinique, and many more. This happened through intense warfare in which the native people suffered greatly. Between 1762 and 1914, the island of Lucia changed hands seven times.

To this day, various European powers and the U.S. hold onto the islands as “overseas territories,” “commonwealths,” and other terms that seek to conceal an actual colonial relationship. In the case of St. Martin, the island is actually split—one side ruled by France, the other by the Dutch. Besides the profit that the imperialists extract from these islands, a major part of this is maintaining a strategic foothold in the crucial Caribbean region, which could again assume mainly military dimensions under future conditions.

Sugar and Slavery

With the new rulers came new and even more savage forms of exploitation. As gold deposits were exhausted and native populations were exterminated, the British, Dutch, and French (as well as the Spanish on the islands they still held) turned to agriculture to make profits. And what this meant was slavery. An estimated five million people were kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

In one of history’s most towering crimes, every single European power and the United States ground up the flesh and bones of generations of African people into the foundation of their great wealth and power today—of the whole capitalist-imperialist system. Take French Haiti as one example of the system that also reigned in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, and elsewhere: the colonial rulers of Haiti imported up to 40,000 slaves a year. And by the late 18th century, 60 percent of the coffee and 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe came from this small country, making it France’s most valuable colony.

Conditions were brutal: working under the lash and in the broiling sun, ill-fed and housed, beaten and tortured, the average life expectancy of a slave in Haiti was 21 years! This led to courageous resistance, which was met with the most grotesque tortures. A former slave wrote:

Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excrement? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?

Yet in the face of all this, Haitian slaves organized repeated rebellions, until in 1804, Toussaint L’Ouverture, (and after L’Ouverture’s murder by the French, Jean-Jacques Dessalines) led a revolutionary war that defeated a series of European armies and established Haiti as an independent republic. This victory inspired slaves in other places, and the growing fear of revolution was a major factor in the decision of the European powers to abolish slavery in the Caribbean between 1838 and 1863. (Other factors in ending slavery were opposition among sections of people in Europe, and economic changes that rendered it not so central to capitalist profit.)

After Slavery: The Spanish-American War and the Rise of Yankee Imperialism

After slavery ended in the mid-late 1800s, the great powers continued to brutally exploit the Caribbean nations. Where there were natural resources like bauxite (Jamaica) or petroleum (Trinidad), large sections of the population, including the descendants of former slaves and indentured servants, went to work enriching the imperialists, now as “free” proletarians rather than outright slaves.

The great powers also battled—sometimes in open warfare, sometimes in other ways, but always fiercely—over which would dominate and control this source of such enormous wealth and global influence.

In 1898, the U.S. declared war on Spain, quickly defeated it, and took over its Caribbean colonies. U.S. troops occupied Cuba, and the U.S. outright annexed the island of Puerto Rico. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, in a warning to its great power rivals, declared the U.S. “right” to act as an “international police power” in the Caribbean, and followed up by bullying the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries into transferring control of their economies from European powers to the U.S.

The U.S. carried out this brazen imperialism in the name of “protecting” the Caribbean from foreign powers, and would later declare itself a “Good Neighbor” to the Caribbean and Latin America. It was literally stepping onto the world stage as an imperialist power rivaling the empires of Europe on the backs of the peoples of the Caribbean and other oppressed regions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was ousting rivals and seizing control of island after island for itself. In 1902, the U.S. made Cuba a “protectorate” under its control and established a U.S. Naval Base (colony) at Guantanamo Bay. The Cuban people had been fighting against Spain for their independence, but now the U.S. repeatedly dispatched ships and troops to suppress opposition to Yankee imperialism. The U.S. landed Marines in Cuba in 1906, and they remained until 1909. It dispatched troops again in 1912 and 1917, then occupied the country until 1933.   

In Cuba and some of the other Caribbean countries, agriculture remained the focus of the economy, but it was increasingly organized under imperialist auspices as agriculture for export—bananas, sugar, coffee, cacao—leaving even many islands with thriving agriculture and rich soil dependent on food imports to actually feed their population, an outrage that continues to this day.

By the 1950s, the U.S. controlled 80 percent of Cuban utilities, 90 percent of Cuban mines, close to 100 percent of the country’s oil refineries, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. And the country was turned into a paradise for U.S. gambling syndicates, real estate operators, hotel owners, and mobsters. As a result, conditions for the Cuban people were horrific: sugar plantation workers faced incredibly oppressive conditions—slave-like labor punctuated by periods of unemployment. One hundred thousand Cuban women were exploited as prostitutes for sex tourists. The Yankees gave economic and military backing to one hated regime after another to enforce this oppressive political, economic, and social setup.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution overthrew the vicious Batista regime, the U.S. embargoed and threatened Cuba for decades, including invading in 1961 (the “Bay of Pigs”) and threatening war, possibly global nuclear war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Today, the Trump/Pence regime threatens renewed hostilities against Cuba.


Conquering and Colonizing Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic

In 1898, U.S. troops also landed in Puerto Rico and seized control of the island from Spain. This marked the beginning of decades of U.S. military occupation, exploitation and poverty, cultural suppression, and national subjugation of Puerto Rico. In 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico was an “unincorporated territory”—a colony with no path to statehood. A 1934 study found that Puerto Ricans working on U.S. sugar plantations were paid on average 12 cents a day.

On the nearby island of Hispaniola, the U.S. sent troops to the Dominican Republic in 1905, 1907, and occupied the country from 1916 to 1924, wrenching it from German control. The U.S. put the Dominican Republic under economic control (“customs supervision”) from 1905 to 1940, putting the ruthless tyrant Rafael Trujillo in power in 1930 and backed his murderous rule for three decades until 1961, when he was assassinated with the help and supervision of the CIA.

Yankee imperialism struck on the other side of the island of Hispaniola as well, invading Haiti in 1915 to impose its control and occupying it until 1934. At least 19,000 Haitians were murdered by the occupiers. The U.S. Marines helped put down one people’s uprising in 1918 and killed 2,000 people.

In all these countries, the U.S. imposed new forms of imperialist exploitation and oppression. Often, large numbers of small farmers were driven off the land in the interior of these countries to make way for plantations growing crops for export, a form of production that required very few year-round workers. Many of these former peasants went to the coastal cities, in search of work in industries that grew up there exactly to take advantage of the desperation of these displaced peasants, who were compelled to work cheap and hard just to survive—for example, pharmaceuticals in Puerto Rico and garment in Haiti (in the mid-20th century).

In more recent decades, imperialist-dominated service industries such as tourism and the “off-shore banking industry” have rapidly expanded. This, too, drew and drove large sections of the population to the coastal cities, and was associated with the decimation of agriculture meeting local needs. At best, this meant jobs and slight economic stability for a section of the people, servicing the needs of Europeans and Americans, whether tourists or wealthy tax dodgers. And at worst it was savage exploitation in cane fields or mines, little better than slavery, and then being tossed aside when capital moved elsewhere. In many countries, it has meant massive slums surrounding the major cities, where many live by scavenging in garbage dumps or are forced into the dangerous underground economy of drugs.

All this has led to mounting debt crises, and the steady deterioration of social and physical national infrastructure, and the intensifying destruction of the environment and threats from increasingly powerful hurricanes. The Caribbean is one of the most tourism-dependent areas in the world, and this is very connected to, for example, threats to the very existence of coral reefs, which are home to an incredible variety of sea life, because of waste from cruise ships and other factors. And as climate experts warn, based on mounting scientific evidence, global climate change—caused in large part by capitalism-imperialism’s massive burning of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases—is already leading to increasingly bigger and more destructive storms and other “extreme weather events.” The rising sea levels from global warming are also putting the homes and livelihoods of millions in the Caribbean islands in peril, as in other low-lying seacoast areas across the globe.

America’s Bloody Fist Hammers the Caribbean, Again and Again

The United States has never stopped sending its military to violently enforce its domination and maintain its enslavement of the peoples of the Caribbean. 

In 1950, U.S.-directed forces crushed a rebellion in Puerto Rico seeking independence. The U.S. Navy has evicted thousands of people off Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico’s east coast, and pounded and polluted it for many years as their practice bombing range. Puerto Rico remains a U.S. “commonwealth”—i.e., colony. Today its infrastructure has been so weakened by years of debt crisis imposed by U.S. imperialism that it faces a grave health care emergency. Even Hurricane Irma’s “glancing blow” has left millions of households without power, which the government has already said could take up to six months to restore. Another 50,000 people are without water.

After assassinating Trujillo in 1961, the U.S. again invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965, killing somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 Dominicans, in order to crush a mass armed rebellion and install a pro-U.S. government in power. The U.S. troops conducted house-to-house raids and blew up entire buildings in residential neighborhoods, then occupied the country for 14 more months, carrying out bombing missions and violently breaking up public demonstrations. After the end of formal occupation, the U.S.-backed Balaguer regime carried out a wave of terror during the 1970s. During these years, it was estimated that someone was “disappeared” every 34 hours on average. Generations of Dominicans were forced to leave and seek refuge, millions ending up in areas of concentrated poverty inside the belly of the beast, like Washington Heights in New York City.

In Haiti in 1957, the U.S. helped put the barbaric François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his thugs, the Tonton Macoute, in power. In 1971, U.S. Navy ships stood guard in the capital’s harbor to ensure the transition of power to Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”). In 1991, the CIA organized a bloody coup d’état to remove the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power. U.S. troops were deployed to Haiti in 1994-1995 and again in 2004-2005 to maintain U.S. control. Nearly 100 years of U.S. imperialist dominance has left Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. An earthquake in 2010 killed hundreds of thousands, and left 1.6 million homeless. Then a cholera epidemic killed thousands, and last year Hurricane Matthew slammed Haiti, producing massive flooding and mudslides wiping out major highways and whole villages.

The U.S.—the CIA in particular—has also repeatedly intervened to shape Jamaica’s politics and economics, including forcing Jamaica into the murderous clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exposed in the 2001 documentary Life and Debt. In October 1983, the U.S. invaded Grenada, overthrowing the government and bringing the island under U.S. control. The Virgin Islands, bought from Denmark in 1916, remain a U.S. colony to this day. In 1989, the U.S. dispatched over 1,000 military police, federal marshals and FBI agents to St. Croix to crush a rebellion triggered by people’s desperation in the wake of Hurricane Hugo’s devastation. All this by no means exhausts the litany of U.S. invasions, interventions, coups, and other means of strangling and controlling the Caribbean.  

The Reality of the Caribbean “Paradise”

An often repeated phrase in the news coverage of Hurricane Irma’s path of destruction through the Caribbean has been “paradise lost”—as if there was none of the long history of colonialism, slavery, imperialist invasions, exploitation on plantations and in sweatshops, and more. And as if there were no connections between that history and the impoverishment, the breakdown of social infrastructure, and the distorted economic development of the Caribbean today that drives people to the vulnerable coastal areas and increases dependency on foreign powers—a situation that has created a situation of extreme vulnerability to the ravages of these powerful storms. A vulnerability 500 years in the making, and which will now require profound revolutionary change around the region and world to overcome.



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