Annual Focus 2009: The Caribbean

A Haitian couple stands in the charred ruins of their Saint-Marc home, burned in February 2004 during fighting between rebels and supporters of the former president of Haiti Jean Bertrand Aristide. Photo: © Paul Jeffrey / ACT

Ecumenically speaking, the Caribbean or West Indies include the islands of the Caribbean Sea (an archipelago that stretches from Florida, US to the coast of Venezuela) and a few countries in South and Central America that border on the Caribbean, i.e. Belize, Gyuana and Suriname. The Caribbean includes 13 independent nations, the rest of the islands being colonies, territories and possessions of France, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela.  While it is a region of almost bewildering diversity, there is a common history of colonialism and neocolonialism, imperialism, exploitation, conquest and slavery, as well as resistance, dignity and struggle for sovereignty. 

Indigenous peoples - the peaceful Arawaks and the not-so-peaceful Caribs - inhabited these lands for more than 2,000 years.  Today most of them have disappeared, wiped out (except for those living in Dominica and Trinidad) by European explorers, led by Christopher Columbus, who arrived in the area in 1492.  This began a time of European economic domination based on slavery and sugar, which resulted in the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples.  On the island of Hispaniola (today's Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where Columbus first landed, the Arawaks were annihilated by the Spanish in less than 25 years.  These were people with their own religions, culture and languages, but the harsh treatment meted out by the colonial Christian missionaries who regarded their religious practices as demonic amounted to genocide, and their religions were stamped out.

The slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar plantations also had their own languages, culture and religions, but these too were wiped out.  A triumphalistic form of Christianity was imposed (often brutally) on the remaining natives and Africans, so that outwardly Christianity be came the religions of the newly settled colonies. 

French and Spanish colonizers brought Catholicism to the French Antilles, Cuba, Trinidad, St. Lucia and Dominica, while the Churches of England became prominent on the British Antilles.  These historic patterns remain today.  Later came Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Moravians, whose influence also continues. 

After the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, there was a period of indentured labour in which workers from India, Indonesia and China were forced to work on the plantations, each brining their own cultures and religions to such countries as Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana. 

Haiti was ceded to the French in 1697 and became one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean due to the heavy importation of slaves.  In the late eighteenth century, Haiti's nearly half-million slaves revolted under Toussaint l'Ouverture and after a prolonged struggle became the first black republic to gain independence, in 1804.  However, Haiti has been plagued by dictatorships, political violence and invasions for most of its history.  Today, it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. 

In Cuba, the War of Independence in 1868 claimed the lives of many.  In 1959 it once again threw off the culture and economic domination of the US and toppled a repressive dictatorship, developing its own form of socialism. 

There have also been repeated political skirmishes and coups in the history of Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad.  The twentieth century heralded resistance movements all around the Caribbean.  Most of the British Caribbean gained independence in the 1960s.  This began a new era with leaders, who, in general, were chosen by the people, but since independence many countries have suffered from weak governance and corruption, and the following four decades have been convulsive, characterized by dramatic cultural, political and economic transformations. 

The nations of the Caribbean have been defined economically as developing.  This means that, despite their independence, most of the countries are not able to support themselves without fiscal aid from first world countries.  Much of the Caribbean is renowned as a vacation paradise and tourism is vital for many of these countries.  Even so, poverty is rampant and most countries are economically unstable.  In many countries the inflations rate is high, creating the conditions for violence, made worse by the illegal drugs trade.   Other problems in the Caribbean include hurricanes and increasing water and soil pollution.  Situated between the rich North and the poor South, the Caribbean region shares the poverty of the South whiles its peoples aspire to the materialistic lifestyles of the North, whose consumerism bombards them in the mass media. 

Throughout all eras of Caribbean history, there have been persons or groups who have fought for the recognition of the humanity of oppressed peoples.  For instance, Montesinos and Bartholme de las Casas were Dominican friars who became known as the protectors of the Indians.  Antislavery movements were often spearheaded by Protestant groups such as the Quakers, Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists.  These groups were also instrumental in helping the freed blacks establish some degree of autonomy.  These churches soon found their membership increasing to include many of the families that they helped. 

With the Caribbean's diversity in religious groups and cultures, different traditions and practices are often blended together.  Even so, the dominant religion is Christianity.  Liberation theology is important in the Caribbean, as people are able to identify easily with the Old Testament theme of God as liberator of the oppressed.  The church often ecumenical in nature and mission oriented, and many denominations in the Caribbean are members of the World Council of Churches.  The Caribbean Conference of Churches is the major regional ecumenical body and includes the Roman Catholic Church.

Source: In God's Hands, Common Prayer for the World, Ed. Hugh McCullum and Terry MacArthur, WCC Publications, 2006.

More information on churches and countries in the Caribbean: