As the New World was rapidly becoming a region to be explored, demarcated and fought over by the European powers, the Caribbean became a key battleground. In the 16th and 17th centuries Spain, France, and England fought for control of the region's territories and shipping lanes. European states had laid claim to most of the Caribbean islands by the 1600s, but ownership of key islands was hardly static. On occasion, geopolitical competition in Europe would spill over into the region. For example, the Seven Years' War, pitting coalitions governed by France against those of England from 1754 to 1763, led to skirmishes between British and Spanish forces in the Caribbean. Islands and territory along the Central American coast changed hands from time to time, and even large colonies, such as Cuba, were vulnerable to invasion.
The general decline of European empires in the Americas in the early 19th century redrew the geopolitical contours of the Caribbean. After nearly 300 years of dominance, European power in the region sharply declined within several decades. The shifting balance of power in Europe was largely responsible. France's conquest of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars essentially ended Madrid's already flagging ability to rule its far-flung Caribbean and Latin American colonies. By 1830, virtually the entire Spanish Empire in the Americas was fractured into independent nations, save for Cuba and Puerto Rico. A slave revolt that began in 1791 in what is now Haiti expelled the French from Hispaniola by 1804. The departure of two major European powers from the Caribbean created a vacuum that the expanding United States steadily filled. It issued the Monroe Doctrine to deter European empires from re-entering the hemisphere, even if it couldn't always back up that demand with force. By the mid-19th century, the United States was powerful enough that advocates of westward expansion were also pushing for the annexation of Cuba. By the late 19th century, the United States firmly viewed the Caribbean as a key buffer zone against European expansion. And by the time it wrested Cuba and Puerto Rico from the Spanish in 1898, it faced no competition in the region from any of the European powers.
With its hold on the Caribbean secure, the United States used the 20th century to develop its economy and military power free from European threats. The key Mississippi River port of New Orleans, which generated wealth through agricultural exports, could no longer be easily threatened by any European nations. The decline of European military power after World War II further cemented the U.S. hold over the Caribbean. Now, the only potential opponent the United States had to worry about was the Soviet Union, whose ability to project power into the Americas was limited. No direct threats to the United States have emerged from the Caribbean since the Soviet Union ended its short-lived nuclear missile deployment in Cuba in 1962. Concerns over Soviet encroachment in the Americas further declined with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Caribbean remains strategically vital to the United States, and its hold will remain uncontested. But events in Europe and Eurasia since the end of the Cold War have further reduced the relevance of the Caribbean to U.S. policymakers. Even though Russia's military capabilities have improved since their decline after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Cold War competition for the Third World, including the Caribbean and Latin America, is gone. The rise of more advanced military technology and the shifting balance of global power have reduced the military importance of the Caribbean. After all, part of the reason for acquiring territories for bases was to project naval power
into the Caribbean and out into the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. military power still rests on its naval might, but aircraft and satellites, longer-range nuclear-powered naval vessels and modern telecommunications have reduced the reliance on surface ships for offensive actions, communications and reconnaissance. So U.S. relations with Caribbean nations now focus on secondary issues, such as drug trafficking, migration and regional trade.
But European dominance left the Caribbean with a hodgepodge of small, often economically unviable countries scattered across a wide ocean. Because of their historical role as commodity exporters, even larger states, such as Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, have faced difficulty in expanding and diversifying their economies. Most Caribbean states can't rely on their domestic markets to drive economic growth, and some of the smallest states are overwhelmingly reliant on specific industries, such as tourism, or in the case of Curacao, petroleum refining. Some have managed to build relationships with larger trading partners. For example, Cuba has had a 17-year association with Venezuela that has enabled the impoverished country to exchange security and medical services for low cost fuel. The Dominican Republic has shifted exports away from primarily sugar cane to higher value medical goods, aided by its inclusion in the Central American Free Trade Agreement and low tariff exports to the United States. Vast deposits of natural gas were the key to Trinidad and Tobago's economic development. But less fortunate nations, such as Jamaica, lack these benefits and continue to contend with slow economic growth, overreliance on services and persistent financial deficits.
The glory days of the Caribbean have faded, and the region will play a far smaller role in global affairs for decades to come. While problems will emerge that require U.S. attention, these will be of a much lower priority. For example, a decision on lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba
will come to the fore in coming years. Other issues include illegal migration from Haiti and drug trafficking from South America through the Caribbean. But these are generally policy problems that will involve specific nations — there are few issues from the weakened region that rise to the level of troubling the United States. The Caribbean region's influence on world events will remain small.