The Caribbean in the Crossfire: Between Covid-19, Narcotics, China, and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

posted by R. Evan Ellis on April 27, 2022 - 10:35am

This work was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Strategic Importance of the Caribbean Basin

The Caribbean is strategically vital as the southeast maritime approach to the United States. It is a key hub and transit area for commercial logistics serving the eastern coast of the United States as well as the Atlantic side of Central and South America. The region is connected to the United States through ties of commerce, geography, and family. Not only is the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico situated centrally in the Caribbean between the Dominican Republic and the Leeward Antilles islands, but significant diasporas of Cubans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Haitians, and others are found in U.S. communities, from South Florida to New York and New Jersey and beyond.

The United States relies on good governance in the Caribbean and partnership on a range of national security issues, including the entry of illegal narcotics (principally moving north from Colombia and Venezuela) and other contraband goods. Even more importantly, the Caribbean touches—or is proximate to—a substantial number of important U.S. ports and military facilities, such as Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah and Kings Bay, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia. Not only are these facilities critical to U.S. international maritime commerce, but military facilities in some of those areas play important roles in the deployment and sustainment of forces in a range of potential conflicts, be they in Africa, Europe, or Asia. Indeed, during the wars of the previous century, German submarines sought to operate in or near the Caribbean in order to put U.S. facilities and ship convoys at risk.

The United States relies on good governance in the Caribbean and partnership on a range of national security issues, including the entry of illegal narcotics (principally moving north from Colombia and Venezuela) and other contraband goods.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heated up in early 2022, the strategic significance of the Caribbean for the United States was further highlighted by Russia’s indirect threat to deploy military forces there. This included the January 2022 statement by Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov that his country could not rule out the deployment of military assets to Cuba or Venezuela (both of which are situated in the Caribbean Basin). In case the threat was too subtle, Ryabkov’s comments were followed up weeks later by the explicit signing of a military cooperation agreement between Russia and Venezuela during Russian deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov’s February 2022 visit to the region.

Beyond its strategic commercial and military importance to the United States, the Caribbean Basin has also historically hosted important Islamic communities. While these have long been substantially peaceful and tolerant, there exist some groups and networks of concern. This is particularly the case within a handful of problematic mosques that have led to some radicalized groups, especially among the marginalized Afro-Caribbean population. The highest-profile case occurred in Trinidad and Tobago, whose Islamic community sent at least 130 radicalized youth to fight for the Islamic State caliphate from 2014 through 2017. Other examples include the recruitment of Islamic terrorists from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago in an attempt to bomb the John F. Kennedy airport in 2007. Additionally, communities in Maicao, Colombia, and Margarita Island, Venezuela, have garnered attention from those who follow Islamic terrorist activities and finance.

Deepening Challenges for the Region

Given the strategic importance of the Caribbean and the multiple ways it has alternately contributed to and threatened U.S. security, it is significant that the region is currently coming under pressure from an unprecedented combination of different challenges.

The migration of Venezuelans to the region has strained the ability of the small populations and economies of the Caribbean to absorb them, and often contributes to the growth of the informal sector of the economy—including the sex trade—as desperate local migrants struggle to make a living. Since 2014, more than 115,000 Venezuelans have migrated to the Dominican Republic alone. In Trinidad and Tobago, an estimated 40,000 displaced Venezuelans were living in the country by April 2021, including many who had made the perilous journey by boat. This has created political disputes within the country and with the international community regarding how to handle the migrant influx.

The Caribbean also continues to be an important route for illegal narcotics bound for the United States, something that is associated with corrupting influences on the small island governments and economies. Although the majority of U.S.-bound drugs flow through Central America or the Pacific, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 8 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine comes through the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic is a key hub for drugs moving from Colombia and Venezuela toward the United States and Europe in this regard. Between August 2020 and December 2021 alone, Dominican authorities intercepted 33.7 metric tons of illegal drugs. Illegal narcotics coming into the Dominican Republic are sometimes warehoused there before being sent on to the United States directly, to Central American intermediate points such as Guatemala, or to neighboring Puerto Rico, the closest U.S. territory.

In recent years, the Caribbean has further been severely impacted by record seasons for hurricanes and tropical storms as a function of climate change. The increasing challenge was particularly highlighted by the record 2020 hurricane season—in which the region was hit by 31 named storms, including 14 hurricanes—and the above-average 2021 hurricane season, which had 21 named storms and 7 hurricanes.

Since 2020, the Caribbean has been beset by severe economic stresses owing to the loss of tourist revenues due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the region’s economy contracted by 7.7 percent in 2020. In the Dominican Republic alone, the effects of the pandemic pushed poverty from 21.4 percent to 34.6 percent and extreme poverty from 3 percent to 8.2 percent from 2019 to 2020. During this period, almost all Caribbean governments also took on significant increased debt loads to address the immediate demands of the pandemic, leaving them more fiscally constrained to address development, security, and other needs that continued to grow after the pandemic. In Barbados, for example, public debt as a fraction of GDP jumped from 117 percent of GDP just before the pandemic, in 2019, to 142 percent of GDP in 2020. During the same period, Belize government debt jumped from 88 percent of GDP to 118 percent of GDP, and Bahamas debt jumped from 64 percent of GDP to 99 percent of GDP, just to name a few examples.

Due to a combination of these economic pressures with the previously noted corrupting drug flows, increased access to guns, and other complicating factors, several Caribbean states saw substantial increases in homicides in 2021. These include Jamaica, whose murder rate increased by 10 percent in 2021 to 49.4 murders per 100,000 people—the worst in the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, with 32 murders per 100,000 people, Trinidad and Tobago saw a 12 percent increase; in once-peaceful Belize, beset by an increasingly fragmented gang culture, murders have reached 29 per 100,000 people.

In Haiti—which is already an exporter of arms to its neighbors, and whose epidemics of diseases like cholera have spread beyond its borders due in part to the displacement of refugees—the country’s gangs, such as 400 Mawozo and G9 and Family, have become more powerful than the national police (although the reported murder rate remained a moderate 13.7 per 100,000 people). Indeed, as of 2022, some 95 armed bands were operating in the greater Port-au-Prince area alone. The criminal activities of these groups have even extended to the kidnapping of foreign aid workers. Haiti could hold elections in the second half of 2022, raising the prospect for expanded violence in the country—either in the run-up to these elections, or if the interim leadership of Ariel Henry continues to postpone them. Citizen faith in the government and its processes is abysmally low, with residents regarding the Haitian government as the second-most corrupt in the hemisphere, behind only Venezuela. Compounding the worrisome implications of elections, Haiti experts consulted on the condition of anonymity for this work note that most of the potential candidates to replace Henry are interested in changing relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In addition to the economic, criminal, and fiscal challenges outlined in the preceding paragraphs, the war in Ukraine adds even more stresses to the socioeconomic and political dynamics of the Caribbean, due to substantial increases in the price of petroleum and foodstuffs, both of which Caribbean nations must import in significant quantities. Indeed, of the Caribbean’s three petroleum producers, although Guyana may benefit from higher petroleum prices, it is less clear that Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname are yet positioned to do so.

Although Caribbean politics are generally consensual, a significant number of elections will occur across the Caribbean during the next year, in addition to the possible choice of a new government in Haiti. These elections and the run-up to them could channel the region’s socioeconomic stresses into unexpected mobilization and political change. Upcoming contests include elections in the Bahamas (May 2022), Bermuda (July 2022), the U.S. Virgin Islands (November 2022), the British Virgin Islands (February 2023), Grenada (March 2023), Antigua and Barbuda (March 2023), and Barbados (May 2023).

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