The Shrinking Number of Commonwealth Realms after Elizabeth II

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and ascension of Charles to the throne, two of the most important remnants of the British Empire are heading in opposite directions. On the one hand, the Commonwealth Realms, in which the British Monarch remains the (ceremonial) Head of State, is contracting, especially in the Caribbean. On the other hand, the Commonwealth of Nations, a much larger political club over which Charles now stands as Head, is expanding, especially in Africa. We will look today at the Commonwealth Realms and take up the Commonwealth of Nations tomorrow.

Unlike the Commonwealth of Nations, Commonwealth Realms are not constituted as an organization. Each of 15 countries in this category have independent relations with the “the Crown.” Charles III is thus officially the King of Canada independently of his role as king of the United Kingdom. As the Canadian government’s website notes:

Canada is a constitutional monarchy whereby the Sovereign is Canada’s Head of State. King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of Canada on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

But Canada is, of course, a sovereign state, and Charles enjoys no actual sovereignty over it. His role is strictly ceremonial, as it is in the other Commonwealth Realms. To a significant extent, it is only theoretically ceremonial, as even that role is largely carried out by his Canadian representative, the Governor General of Canada (an office currently held by Mary Simon).

Most Commonwealth Realms are small Caribbean countries, although Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, as well as Canada, also fit in the category. In the Caribbean, anger over the destructive legacy of slavery is increasing, resulting in demands for a royal apology that have not been forthcoming. As Prince of Wales, however, Charles did offer some apologetic remarks. Still, protests have dogged vising members of the royal family in recent months. In 2021, Barbados dropped the monarchy and became a republic. Belize, Jamaica, and several other Caribbean countries are now moving in the same direction.

One reason for the Caribbean dissatisfaction with the monarchy is the coming to the throne of Charles himself. Unlike his mother, Charles has not enjoyed widespread popularity. Her death is therefore seen as a good opportunity to drop the historically fraught relationship with the House of Windsor, the current British dynasty.

In the United Kingdom itself, Charles was far less popular than his mother when she was alive. According to YouGov polling conducted earlier this year, Elizabeth was “liked” by 75 percent of the population and Charles by only 42 percent. But as soon as he became king, Charles’s popularity surged. Some observers, however, see this as a “honeymoon bounce,” expecting that this approval will soon decline.

In the larger Commonwealth Realms, opinions on the monarchy are split between those who support it, those who want to see it abolished, and those who don’t know or don’t care. No position has majority standing. Considering such uncertainly among their electorates, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand will probably remain Commonwealth Realms for some time, with the British monarch serving as their official Head of State.

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Puerto Ricans Appear to Endorse Statehood in Referendum

Lost in the extensive coverage of the 2012 U.S. Election is the recurrent and important issue of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. On Tuesday, the Puerto Rican electorate appeared to endorse statehood in a two-part non-binding referendum. Fifty-four percent of voters prefer changing Puerto Rico’s status from the status quo, and 61 percent of voters supported statehood. “Sovereign free association” garnered 33 percent of the vote, and independence only five percent. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S. with “commonwealth” standing, a status that brings with it a complicated set of rights and privileges.

The two-part nature of the referendum question means that the results may not be the ringing endorsement of statehood that backers of the proposal had hoped. Of the 54 percent favoring a change in status, many could have desired either independence or sovereign free association. Likewise, of the 61 percent of voters statehood as opposed to independence or sovereign free association, many might actually want to retain the status quo. . Overall, the results seem to be compatible with previous statehood referendums and likely do not reflect any profound change in public opinion.

The 2012 Puerto Rican status referendum’s wording has come under harsh criticism, even from supporters of statehood. Pedro Rosselló, the former Governor of Puerto Rico and a longtime backer of statehood, feels that the referendum’s wording will cause “an indefinition that, in the end, will bring more of the same: the continuous status quo.” Nevertheless, most pro-statehood politicians appear to accept the results.

The next move belongs to the U.S. government, though it remains unclear when that move will occur and what form it will take. If Tuesday’s referendum is taken as an endorsement of statehood, Congress will need to decide on whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state. President Barack Obama, as well as leaders of both political parties, have promised to support Puerto Rico’s self-determination, though with the results of the two-part referendum open to interpretation, it is not certain what either the President or Congress will do.

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuna, a backer of statehood, supports both the referendum and the pro-statehood interpretation of its results. He has promised to hold a constitutional assembly in 2014 followed by plebiscite, the necessary next-steps for statehood. Unfortunately for statehood-proponents, Fortuna lost his bid for reelection to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who favors the status quo.

Even if the current referendum goes nowhere, a firmer resolution to the question of Puerto Rico’s status appears likely within the few years. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has asked several times since 2006 for the U.S. to “allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence”. The U.S. government agrees, and has responded with a flurry of reports and investigations over the last few years. The report (pdf) published by the President’s 2011 Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status argued for a two-stage referendum by which voters would first decide whether to remain part of the U.S., either as a state or remaining as a dependency. Then, if the independence option is turned down, a second vote would have the electorate chose between statehood and the status quo. Most likely a clear referendum like this one will be necessary for the U.S. government to act.

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Revamping French Guiana for the World Cup and Olympics

Although Brazil has received ample press attention in its scramble to prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, its neighbor French Guiana has also started drawing up plans to host athletes competing in the two sporting events. The overseas region of France will expand its sport, tourism, and transportation infrastructure in order to attract elite athletes to train there for the games. Earlier this month in London, the government-sponsored group GIP Guiana 2014-2016 promoted the region as a convenient, safe, and scenic place for foreign teams to train away from the hustle and bustle of the main competition venues.

The French government will spend about €35 million ($43 million) over the coming three years on projects that will include the renovation of two soccer stadiums in Rémire-Montjoly and Kourou, as well as the construction of new sports facilities. Future high-end training centers will include an Olympic-grade running track, a swimming pool, and a gym for martial arts, which together would accommodate athletes competing in up to 20 different Olympic events. In addition to a new transport system, French Guiana will also build new hotels, with a capacity of up to 4,000 visitors.

Government officials hope that these activities will boost the economy of French Guiana, which like the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the African island of Mayotte, is considered an integral part of the country of France. The construction jobs and tourism that the project will generate should reduce the region’s unemployment rate of about 20 percent. After the next Olympics, the new stadiums would provide a venue for the cultivation of sports talent in French Guiana, which has a youthful population and many cultural affinities with the Caribbean. Even though the region is considered politically equal to any other in the country—it sends representatives to the French legislature and is part of the EU and Eurozone—it has a much lower standard of living than metropolitan (European) France. While the highest in South America, French Guiana’s GDP per capita is slightly less than half the national average, and the economy is highly dependent on government subsidies and the presence of the European Space Agency’s spaceport.

The effort so far has been promising. Twelve countries are already considering using the country’s facilities, and GIP Guiana 2014-2016 has received advice from the London Olympic authorities about planning for the infrastructural challenges of hosting thousands of athletes and their coaches.


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A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

During 2010, some 299,803,162 tons of ships and cargo moved between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Panama Canal. This total would have no doubt astounded the canal’s builders, but to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which operates the canal today, it is a sign that canal’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate. Many ships are forced to wait up to ten days to cross the canal, costing shippers about $50,000 per day. Bidding wars often arise between ships, with some paying up to $200,000 to move ahead in line. To ensure that congestion in the canal does not drive away traffic, Panamanians in 2006 overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by former president Martín Torrijos authorizing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is generally considered a good investment by outside groups, and received A2 investment grade status from the credit rating agency Moody’s. It is expected to be complete around 2014.

Meanwhile, two of Panama’s neighbors—Nicaragua and Costa Rica—are themselves eyeing the inter-oceanic canal game after 98 years on the sidelines. On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed a bill passed by the National Assembly that set up a legal framework for construction of the Nicaragua Inter-oceanic Canal, with the explicit goal of competing for Panama Canal traffic. The proposed Nicaraguan canal would stretch some 200 kilometers and could cost upwards of $30 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years worth of Nicaraguan GDP. So far support for the project among western governments and private industry is thin, but both Russia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interested in financing the canal.

There are several potential routes for a Nicaraguan canal. The most cost-effective of these would run from the mouth of the San Juan River on the Caribbean coast upriver to Lake Nicaragua—the nineteenth largest lake in the world by area. A channel would then be dug across the isthmus of Rivas to allow ships to access the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new idea; in fact the basic outline of the route is over a hundred and fifty years old. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the American shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a stagecoach line across the isthmus of Rivas, called the Accessory Transit Company, for gold-seekers traveling west. Vanderbilt was soon granted rights to build a canal to the Pacific, though his plans were never carried out. Nevertheless, the notion of a Nicaraguan canal remained potent, as shown in the 1906 map at left (source). A more humble (and realistic) version of the waterway proposed recently, known as the “Ecocanal”, would forgo the costly connection to the Pacific and instead focus on allowing shipping to access the various inland waterways of North America through Lake Nicaragua.

The San Juan River, the linchpin of any practical route to Lake Nicaragua, conveniently lies entirely in Nicaraguan territory, though it does directly border Costa Rica. Tensions along the border have been especially high since 2010, when Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River damaged the environment of the Costa Rican parts of Isla Calero, which sits within the river. The resulting backlash helped to precipitate a small Nicaraguan invasion that became known as the Isla Calero dispute, infamous among Central Americans and geographers as the first armed incursion caused in part by a mistake in Google Maps favoring Nicaragua. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla responded by ordering the construction of a new road along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, known as the San Juan River border road project. Since the road was part of an emergency decree, it was able to bypass environmental review and avoid a great deal of scrutiny that is only now catching up with it.

Construction of the San Juan River border road project is now mired in scandal. Millions of dollars of construction contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals that possess no construction machinery or expertise. Allegedly, any National Roadway Council employees who spoke up about the corruption were fired. On top of these domestic indignities, Nicaraguans now argue that Costa Rica is building a “dry canal” that would allow high-speed movement of container traffic from one port to another. Dry Canals have in the past been proposed in both Colombia and Nicaragua. Though a Costa Rican conspiracy seems rather farfetched, a dry canal there might, if constructed, be a bargain compared to Nicaragua’s $30 billion vision.

One can easily lose track of the multiplicity of canals proposed in Central America over the years. Both Nicaragua’s Inter-oceanic Canal and Costa Rica’s San Juan River border road will likely join them as historical footnotes and topics of regional bickering while the Panama Canal continues to grease the wheels of the world economy. Then again, construction of the Panama Canal doubtless seemed similarly daunting when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, left the region with nothing to show for his efforts but the bodies of 22,000 dead French construction workers strewn about the jungle.

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Debt Issues and Russian Investments in Guyana

Stabroek News recently reported that Russia would write-off $50 million in debt to the government of Guyana. Debt write-offs for the impoverished South American country are nothing new.  In 1999 alone, Guyana successfully negotiated $256 million in debt forgiveness. Almost all of the money owed by the country to the U.S. has been forgiven. Yet repayment burdens remain high. As the Wikipedia reports, “Guyana’s extremely high debt burden to foreign creditors has meant limited availability of foreign exchange and reduced capacity to import necessary raw materials, spare parts, and equipment, thereby further reducing production.”

Although ostensibly aimed at countering the narcotics trade, Russia’s recent debt write-off may be related to its investment activities in the Guyanese bauxite (aluminum ore) industry.  The Russian company UC Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer, recently announced plans for a $21 million expansion of its main facility in Guyana. UC Rusal is a highly global firm, operating in nineteen countries. Although based in Moscow, UC Rusal is incorporated on the island of Jersey, where it also maintains its main financial center. A British Crown Dependency, Jersey maintains its own financial laws, which are very favorable for international business operations.

Russian investments in Guyana have often been controversial. In 2011, opposition politicians in the country threatened to expel both Russian and Chinese firms from the bauxite industry due to labor-law violations. As reported by TerraDaily, “Russian aluminium giant UC Rusal has been at loggerheads with the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union for more than two years over the controversial layoff of 120 workers who had demanded better pay.”

(Photograph from Guyana Then and Now.)


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The US Virgin Islands after the Shuttering of the Hovensa Refinery

Until recently, Hovensa in the U.S. Virgin Islands was one of the world’s largest petroleum refineries, with a capacity of almost 500,000 barrels per day. As of this month, Hovensa is no longer refining oil, but is merely serving as a storage facility. Some 1,900 workers have lost their jobs as a result, devastating the economy of St. Croix and, more generally, that of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Estimates are that unemployment in this U.S. territory will jump from 9.6 per cent to 18.7 percent. The local government has already reduced public salaries by eight percent and has laid-off 500 state workers to deal with budget shortfalls. According to local sources, “The Hovensa announcement has caused a universal shudder of fear and anxiety to pass through our islands. … Unlike a hurricane, we had no warning this was coming, no time to prepare, to adjust to the possibility that we might be hit.”

Corporate officials claim that the refinery lost more than one billion U.S. dollars over the past few years due of weak demand and high operating costs. Hovensa has also been hit by environmental regulations, paying a US$5.3 million fine in 2011 for Clean Air Act violations. The facility may also have had difficulties stemming from its unusual ownership structure: Hovensa was a joint venture of Hess Corporation of New York and state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).

It is not clear what, if anything, could replace the employment lost at Hovensa. The Virgin Islands government wants to encourage renewable energy, and the U.S. administrations thinks that rum exports will increase, but neither seems like much of a replacement. Tourism is the islands’ main economic activity, generating about seventy percent of GDP, but it is unclear how much more the tourism sector can expand. Perhaps greater benefits can be realized by the current broadband internet construction project, which will entail “244 miles of new fiber cables connecting over 700 pieces of network equipment, and will establish or renovate over 45 public computer centers throughout the territory.”

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Maps of Caribbean Geopolitics

Despite the press of news elsewhere, Geocurrents has focused for the past two weeks on the Caribbean, highlighting the region’s geopolitical complexity. As in the Pacific, the welter of small islands in the Caribbean has encouraged the development of distinctive political arrangements. These two largely maritime regions are the main holdouts of Western colonialism. The post-WWII decolonization movement began a bit later here than in Asia or Africa, but by the 1970s it seemed that independence was in the works for most of the remaining dependent territories. Yet at the turn of the millennium, the independence movements had largely died out, with most local residents deciding that the disadvantages of sovereignty outweighed its advantages. Opting to remain under the ultimate authority of a distant metropole, however, has raised difficult questions about the nature of the resulting political subordination, as we have seen in regard to the Dutch zone.

This consideration of Caribbean geopolitics concludes with a series of maps designed to illustrate the region’s geopolitical complexity. The first image above shows the independent states of the region, along with their maritime exclusive economic zones; the second depicts the islands and archipelagos that remain tied to Western powers (Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States), whether as integral areas, dependent territories, or constituent countries. The remaining maps portray supranational organizations. Banding together in multi-state groupings is encouraged by the small sizes of most Caribbean islands. Yesterday’s post included a map of CARICOM, generally regarded as the most important Caribbean block. The third map posted today shows the Association of Caribbean States, a somewhat ineffectual organization dominated by mainland states that has excluded non-sovereign islands from membership.

The penultimate map shows the much smaller but more tightly integrated Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). The OECS has a supreme court as well as its own currency, the East Caribbean dollar, used by all member states except the British Virgin Islands (which employs the US dollar). Much of the work of the group focuses on tourism, widely seen as the key to economic development. (As a recent report puts it, “The OECS Secretariat says, given the economic significance of tourism, the success of the OECS Economic Union will be enabled by the effective coordination of tourism policies in the region.”) The OECS includes only current and former British dependencies, but that may be open to negotiation. Saba and Sint Maarten expressed interested in joining before they became Dutch municipalities, and in 2008, Venezuela applied for membership. Although the OECS reported at the time that it was considering the Venezuelan request, a positive response seems unlikely.

The final map departs from geopolitics per se to take up the geography of sports. Culturally as well as politically, the multi-national West Indian Cricket Team is of some significance. Note that while focused on current and former British dependencies, it also includes the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dutch special municipality of Sint Maarten.

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The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification

highest point in the netherlands?

highest point in the netherlands?composite countries sovereign states composed of constituent countriesThe modern Netherlands forms the heart of the so-called Low Countries, a historical region composed of the flat and watery delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers. As the name suggests, the Low Countries have no mountains. On WikiAnswers, the second-highest-rated response to the question, “What is the highest point in the Netherlands?” is simply, “Nope, we don’t have mountains. Large hills is the best we can do.” The first return, however, is strikingly different, referencing Mount Scenery, a precipitously sloped volcano that reaches 870 meters (2,800 feet) in elevation. Mount Scenery became the Netherlands’ highest point on October 10, 2010, when the Caribbean island of Saba, which essentially is Mount Scenery, was transformed into a “special municipality” of the Netherlands.

The incorporation of Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius into the Netherlands transformed the basic parameters of the country in several regards. The demographic change was relatively minor; the Netherlands’ population jumped by 18,000. More significant were shifts to the country’s geography; its southernmost and westernmost points were suddenly relocated by thousands of miles. The Netherlands also became, in part, a tropical land.

Such changes may seem trivial, but the reformulation of the Netherlands’ Caribbean holdings opens a fascinating window onto some surprisingly tricky issues of geopolitical conceptualization. What does it require for a formerly separate area to fully become part of a country—not just in legal terms but also in the popular imagination? No one doubts that Hawaii is fully part of the United States. Likewise, the French overseas departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, are by all accounts integral portions of France. But Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius are “special” municipalities of the Netherlands, and remain distinctive in a more profound sense than that of sheer distance from the mainland. While the use of English as the language of public school instruction in Saba and Saint Eustatius is odd enough, it is the official status of the US dollar that really sets the three islands apart. The relationship maintained by the Netherlands proper with Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius is in some ways similar to that between China proper and its “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, both of which have their own currencies. Although Hong Kong certainly falls under the umbrella of Chinese sovereignty, whether it is an integral part of China is another matter. It is not treated as such by the CIA, the World Bank, and other many other international agencies, and is instead accounted as a separate though subordinate unit.

Similar conundrums of geopolitical classification are posed by a number of other European outliers, starting with the Dutch anomalies of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Legally defined as “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,” these three islands are too autonomous to be counted as integral parts of the Netherlands (whose westernmost point is said to be Bonaire, not the more westerly island of Aruba.) Greenland is treated in a similar manner. Denmark is never regarded as including this “constituent country;” if it were, Denmark would jump to thirteenth rank in the standard list of countries by area. Yet the relationship between the United Kingdom and its “constituent countries” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is completely different, entailing much tighter linkages. Geographers would never think of excluding Scotland from a depiction of the United Kingdom the way we habitually exclude Greenland from Denmark.

In short, the concept of “constituent country” is inherently muddled, meaning different things in different sovereign states. Further extensions of the category provide no clarity. French Polynesia is sometimes described as a constituent country of France, just as the Cook Islands and Niue may be said to form constituent countries of New Zealand, yet none of these Pacific polities is legally defined in such terms. Officially, the Cook Islands form a parliamentary democracy in “free association with New Zealand,” which retains sovereignty. Yet the three countries that exist in similar “free association” with the United States (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) are all considered independent, and are in fact members of the United Nations.

The upshot is that the term “Netherlands” is now an inherently ambiguous geopolitical category. It might refer just to the European heartland, or it might include the three Caribbean special municipalities as well. But the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” explicitly includes as well as the three Caribbean constituent countries (Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten). To put it differently, the Netherlands is not to be confused with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which it is merely one constituent country. And to make matters even more complex, the European portion of the Netherlands is often referred to in casual parlance as Holland, even though this term, strictly speaking, denotes only two of the country’s twelve provinces (North Holland and South Holland).

As always, the political division of the world turns out to be far more complex than it seems at first glance.

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Caribbean Geopolitical Rivalry?

alliances in the caribbean

alliances in the caribbeanAs explained recently in Geocurrents, the anti-U.S. ALBA alliance led by Venezuela is not what it might appear to be at first glance, as several small Caribbean countries have joined it more for economic than geopolitical reasons. Still, it seems worthwhile to map the potential geopolitical division of the Caribbean entailed by the existence of the ALBA alliance and that of its nemesis, NATO, led by the United States. The resulting map, posted above, shows both the land areas and the maritime exclusive economic zones held by members of the two blocks. The areas mapped within the NATO zone include both integral portions of NATO member states (southern Florida, the French overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the new special Dutch municipalities), as well as their Caribbean dependencies. The maritime dispute between the U.S. and Nicaragua is also indicated. Note also that Guantanamo Bay, perpetually leased by the United States from Cuba, is also indicated, and is exaggerated in size to be made visible.

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The Little-Noticed Dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles

Netherlands Antilles Aruba Political Map

Netherlands Antilles Aruba Political Mapnetherlands caribbean eezLike the unrest in Turks and Caicos, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles has been little mentioned in the press. Indeed, an internet search under that name would lead one to believe it still exists, given the continuing stories on its sports teams, economy, maritime boundaries, and tourism prospects. Yet the Netherlands Antilles was officially disbanded half a year ago, on October 10, 2010. The six Dutch Caribbean islands now have independent relations with the Netherlands: three as “special municipalities,” and three as “constituent countries.”

The Netherlands Antilles was always a geographically and culturally awkward place. Its core originally consisted of the three “ABC” islands—Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao—lying off the Venezuelan coast. Having maintained close relations with the mainland, these islands developed a Portuguese-based language called Papiamentu (in Aruba, Papiamento). The remaining Dutch Antilles—Saba, Saint Eustatius (“Statia”), and Sint Maarten—lie far to the northeast in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. Here the basic language is a Creole form of English. The northern islands are much smaller; Saba covers five square miles (thirteen square kilometers) and is home to fewer than 2,000 people, whereas Curaçao covers 171 square miles (444 square kilometers) and is home to more than 142,000. Sint Maarten is the giant of the northern Dutch possessions, with 37,000 people on thirteen square miles (thirty-four square kilometers), yet it covers only half of the island on which it is located; the rest forms the French “overseas collectivity” of Saint Martin.

During the Cold War, the Netherlands planned on relinquishing its holdings in the Caribbean to a single new country. Such plans were complicated by the historical enmity between Aruba and Curaçao, the most populous of the islands. Aruba had long agitated for separation from the Dutch Antilles, a status that it gained in 1986, with a provision that it would advance to full independence a decade later. But most Arubans, like most other residents of the Dutch Caribbean, soured on the notion of independence as they witnessed the political and economic turmoil that followed the gaining of sovereignty by the former Dutch possession of Suriname on the South American mainland. In 1994, the Netherlands’ government agreed that Aruba could remain an autonomous area under Dutch sovereignty, its official status becoming that of a “constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”

Although the animosity between Aruba and Curaçao was the biggest obstacle to Dutch Antillian unity, the other islands also had their own disagreements. Dissention about the political future of the islands grew intense. Some islanders wanted more separation from the Netherlands, others more integration. In referendums held between 2000 and 2005, only Saint Eustatius voted to remain in the Netherlands Antilles. Curaçao and Sint Maarten opted to follow Aruba, becoming fully autonomous “constituent countries” within the Kingdom. The voters on Bonaire and Saba, meanwhile, chose closer ties with the Dutch homeland. In the end, they, along with Saint Eustatius, were transformed into “special municipalities” of the Netherlands.

As “special municipalities,” Bonaire, Saba, and Saint Eustatius have seemingly become integral parts of the Netherlands, gaining voting rights in both Dutch and European elections. Yet their status remains exceptional. They will not receive the same levels of social security as the Netherlands proper, and they may not have to adopt all Dutch laws—notably that allowing same-sex marriage. In the most striking symbolic departure from European practice, when they dropped the Antillean guilder in January 2011, they adopted not the euro but the US dollar.

The official use of American currency in the three Dutch municipalities has generated some controversy, both locally and in the Netherlands. The heavy dependence on tourism played a role in the decision, as did the strength of the euro. The underlying economic issues, as well as the local cultural flavor, are nicely captured by the comments posted on a St. Maarten website by a dollar defender

Obviously u all aint livin on Sint Maarten to see what the euro is doin the french side of the island. Mussa 40% of businesses on da french side close down because of da value of da euro. Tay even got da citizen of the french side comin over on da dutch side to shop.

Although geopolitically defunct, the Netherlands Caribbean evidently still functions as a unit in sports. A recent headline reads, “Peru confident of beating Netherlands Antilles in Davis Cup.” The Netherlands Antilles’ Olympic Committee (NAOC) acknowledges no organizational change in its discussions of the activities of would-be Olympians from the islands. The geography section of the NAOC website, unfortunately, has not been updated for some time. It simply states that, “The Netherlands Antilles are now in the middle of restructuring the country. This means that from 2007 each island will have an individual relation with the Netherlands.”

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When Is an Island Not An Island? Caribbean Maritime Disputes

caribbean maritime disputes map

caribbean maritime disputes mapaves island caribbeanMatters of basic geographical definition can be extremely important in international disputes and negotiations, especially when it comes to maritime claims. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, any country can claim a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around every island that it controls, usually splitting the differences with the EEZs of other countries that have territories, insular or otherwise, within those limits. But what exactly constitutes an island? How large does it have to be? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is rather vague on this score. It defines an island clearly enough as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide,” but it does not specify a minimum size. Two sections later, certain “naturally formed areas of land, surrounded by water, which remain above water at high tide,” are removed from the category: “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.”

The definitions difficulties here are profound. A mere clump of stone barely extending above the high-tide line obviously does not qualify as an island, but what about a larger rocky mass that could conceivably “sustain human habitation?” What about a non-rocky island too small, too arid, or too cold to sustain human habitation under normal conditions? What if those conditions were modified by human engineering? Such questions are not answered, leading to inherent ambiguity and numerous diplomatic disagreements.

Consider Aves Island, a speck of sand in the central Caribbean, 1,230 feet (375 meters) by 160 feet (50 meters), that supports a few scrubby bushes. That, at any rate, is the current extent of the island; storm surges occasionally submerge the entire islet, changing its size and rearranging its topography. Venezuela currently controls Aves, and claims that it is an island, potentially giving it a sizable extension of its EEZ in the central Caribbean Sea. Since 1978, Venezuela has maintained a permanently staffed scientific station on Aves built on large pilings and protected by a small naval contingent. As a result, the island might be said to sustain human habitation, but it certainly does not do so on the basis of its own resources.

The Venezuelan position has been challenged by several parties. The United Nations considers Aves a mere rock, denying Venezuela an EEZ in the vicinity. Until recently, Dominica also claimed Aves, with support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In 2005, a group of eastern Caribbean countries denounced the Venezuelan claim to the waters around Aves. Venezuela’s vice president José Vicente Rangel responding by asserting that, “Venezuela has been exercising sovereignty since about 1800. I think that the empire’s long arm is involved in this mobilization around Aves Island.” (“The empire,” in Venezuelan diplomatic code, refers to the United States.)

Rangel’s historical assertion is questionable, as American guano collectors occupied the island periodically in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States, however, subsequently dropped all claims to the islet, and in 1978 acknowledged Venezuelan control over both Aves and its marine environs, as specified in the United States-Venezuela Maritime Boundary Treaty. The treaty sets the maritime division between the two countries halfway between Aves and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Venezuelan position was further solidified in 2006 when Dominica dropped its claims. Dominica, not coincidently, soon afterward joined the ALBA alliance, and as such now receives Venezuelan subsidies. Venezuela’s position, however, is complicated by the fact that it has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As such, its claims to an exclusive economic zone around Aves have not been formalized. (The United States has signed the convention, but has never ratified it; the U.S. does, however, honor “almost all the provisions of the treaty.”)

Aves Island – or non-rocky rock, as the case may be – is not the only site of a territorial dispute in the Caribbean. Navassa Island, between Haiti and Jamaica, is occupied by the United States but constitutionally claimed by Haiti. Covering two square miles (5.2 square kilometers), it is a veritable giant compared to Aves. Navassa is currently administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge. A more complex dispute involves a number of tiny islets and sand bars in the western Caribbean. An area known as Serranilla Bank is currently controlled by Colombia but claimed by Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States. Sixty-three miles (110 kilometers) to the east, the sand specks known as Bajo Nuevo Bank are also controlled by Colombia, but are claimed by Jamaica, Nicaragua and the United States. Nicaragua also claims the vastly larger and well-inhabited – and historically English-speaking – Colombian archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia. In 2007, the International Court of Justice recognized “the full sovereignty of Colombia over the islands of San Andrés [and] Providencia…, but left open the question about the demarcation of the maritime boundary… .”

A number of additional maritime boundaries remain in contention across the Caribbean. On February 24, 2011, for example, the Minister of Tourism and International Transport of St. Kitts and Nevis, “informed the Cabinet that [the country] has overlapping or disputed maritime boundaries with the Netherlands Antilles (St. Eustatius), Venezuela, The French Antilles (St. Barthelemy), Antigua and Barbuda, and Montserrat (effectively, the United Kingdom).” When it comes to sea-space dotted with tiny islands, geopolitical boundaries can be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

St. Kitts and Nevis may have an especially hard time demarcating a firm maritime border with “the Netherlands Antilles,” seeing as a geopolitical entity of that name no longer exists, as tomorrow’s post will examine.

When Is an Island Not An Island? Caribbean Maritime Disputes Read More »

Unnoticed Unrest in Turks and Caicos and the Canadian Connection

turks and caicos political map

turks and caicos political mapturks and caicos islandsMassive unrest across much of the Middle East, coupled with the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan, have tended to crowd other important international stories out of the news, such as the on-going debacle in Ivory Coast. While the emphasis on Japan and the Arab world is understandable, other topics deserve attention as well. In keeping with this week’s Geocurrents focus on the Caribbean, today’s post turns to the largely ignored unrest in the British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos, a group of some 40 islands covering 193 square miles (430 square kilometers) of land and containing roughly 36,000 inhabitants.

In early March 2011, protests targeting pay cuts to civil servants and increased utilities rates broke out on Providenciales Island, the territory’s commercial and tourism center. Protestors blocked the road to the airport, some chaining themselves to roadside railings, threatening the vital vacation industry. Talks between the demonstrators and the British officials in charge of the dependency were soon arranged. On March 16, Britain announced that that it would deliver a “bail-out package” for the islands worth $417 million, a sizable figure considering the fact that territory’s entire GDP in 2006 was an estimated $722 million. Although the British government insisted that the “rescue package will not be used … to reverse current cuts,” it did reduce tensions, at least temporarily.

Unrest in Turks and Caicos has deeper roots than those of pay levels and utilities rates. The current crisis dates to 2009, when Britain dissolved the local government and reinstituted direct colonial rule. That action was taken in response to allegations of widespread corruption, as well as “clear signs of political amorality and general administrative incompetence.” A few years earlier, the chief minister of Turks and Caicos had announced that his party’s ultimate goal was full independence; his opponents had countered that he did so only to forestall a commission of inquiry set up to investigate corruption in his administration. Britain’s assumption of direct rule came with assurances that the change would be temporary, as well as a pledge that it would not affect offshore financial operations, a major business in Turks and Caicos, as in many other Caribbean locales. Top local officials were not mollified; one accused British authorities of “dismantling a duly elected government and legislature and replacing it with a one man dictatorship.” Evidence for financial malfeasance, however, was solid, including one instance in which 239 acres of crown land were leased for $1 an acre. Major courts cases to reclaim plundered assets are pending.

Turks and Caicos has long been geopolitically anomalous. The archipelago was annexed by Britain in 1799 and initially ruled as part of the Bahamas. It became a separate colony in 1848, but in 1873 it was assigned to the British island of Jamaica. In 1959 it was again made a colony in its own right, but it remained under the authority of the governor of Jamaica. In 1965, however, it was placed under the power of the British administrator of the Bahamas, even though it remained administratively distinct. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, Turks and Caicos finally got its own governor. Although independence has often been discussed, a more widely mooted alternative has been, oddly enough, union with Canada. Many Canadians evidently fancy the idea of a tropical outpost for their country, while many residents of Turks and Caicos believe that membership in the vastly larger and more powerful but distant and accommodating country would bring substantial benefits.

The idea of annexing Turks and Caicos to Canada has a long history. It was first proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917, but was shot down by the British government. A 1974 annexation bill failed to pass the Canadian House of Commons. In 1982, the local government of the islands, having soured on the idea of eventual independence, made renewed inquiries in Ottawa about a possible union. One sticking point was size, as Turks and Caicos was considered too small and lightly populated to form a Canadian province in its own right. In 2004, however, the legislature of Nova Scotia offered membership in its own provincial body, potentially bypassing such objections. As one Nova Scotian leader opined, such a merger would be “natural, given historical trade connections and a sea-going culture.” Public opinion polling in 2003 indicated that 60 percent of the people of Turks and Caicos supported merger with Canada.

Many Canadians also champion the incorporation Turks and Caicos. Some 16,000 Canadians visit the archipelago annually, and citizens of Canada reportedly own thirty percent of local hotels and resorts. Enthusiasts highlight the economic advantages that Canada would gain from possessing a deep-water port within a regional free trade zone. Geopolitical leverage is also emphasized. As one Canadian blogger recently framed the issue:

Suppose the port [in Turks and Caicos] doubled as a Canadian military operations base for countries wanting help to patrol their waters and to interdict the Caribbean’s robust trade in smuggled arms, drugs and people. … Suppose Canada fills a vacuum of influence where China, Cuba and — bolstered by Iran — Venezuela have stepped in with medical aid, cheap petroleum, schools and factory construction.

But as the author of the blog also notes, concerns have been raised that “winter-weary” Canadians, especially retirees, would overwhelm the small archipelago. From the Canadian perspective, the biggest draw of Turks and Caicos may well be its tropical location.

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The Mystique of Mustique

Mustique Island, in the country of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, rarely makes the news – unless one counts celebrity gossip sheets. In those sources, the island appears fairly frequently. On March 16, 2011, for example, it was reported that there was a good chance that the “royal couple,” Prince William and Kate Middleton, would be honeymooning on Mustique, “beloved of Princess Margaret other royals.” In late February, speculations circulated that Charlie Sheen might seek refuge on the island: “So … anybody spy Sheen golf carting around Mustique? That’s our guess for his private jet’s destination.”

Mustique, a 1,400 acre (567 hectare) acre island, was radically transformed after 1958, when it was purchased by Colin Tennant, a Scottish aristocrat with a passion for pleasure. The island had once supported sugar plantations, but by the mid-20th century they had been long abandoned. When Tennant shelled out $67,500 for Mustique, its scrub-covered pasturelands supported one small village of around 100 people. His family was not pleased, fearing that the water-short island would be a boondoggle, but Tennant countered by pointing out that “wintering there would be cheaper than heating the castle.”* His goal, however, was to develop the island into an exclusive resort for the British aristocracy and their associates. He jump-started the scheme in 1960 by giving a ten-acre plot to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s party-loving younger sister, as a wedding gift. Margaret built an estate on Mustique, which now rents for $18,000 to $28,000 per week, and came to adore the island. She invited selected friends and rumored lovers to purchase land as well, most notably Mick Jagger. In the meantime, Tennant continued to pour money into the island, exhausting much of his fortune in the process: “I had to borrow money and sell my Lucian Freuds, including my own portrait,” he complained.

By the 1970s, Mustique’s reputation as a place of privacy and parties for the glitterati was well established. All people arriving on the island are screened carefully, and “paparazzi and gossip writers are put on the next flight out.” As a result, harried celebrities claim that they can “behave naturally” on Mustique. Such “natural” behavior has often veered in rather wild directions: “At one early party, the young entertainers from the village didn’t have anything on and one of the ladies said, ‘Why are all those men wearing sporrans?’ But when Princess Margaret was present, there were limits.” Tennant’s final bacchanalia on the island took place in 1999 in a tented pavilion “decorated with erotic wall hangings from the Kama Sutra.” Princess Margaret, naturally, was the guest of honor.

The property relations and legal framework of Mustique have undergone several changes over the past half-century. The government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines early on gave tax-free status to foreign property owners. It subsequently passed two acts, one in 1968 and one in 1989, designed to regulate tourism and limit the number of private villas, now capped at 110. In 1976, Tennant sold the Mustique Company, which holds legal title to the island, to a private consortium, although he continued to serve as master of revels; in 1988, the island’s property owners banded together to purchase the company. The roughly 100 land-holders, including Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger, and Shania Twain, currently own the company and island. Serving them are the some 1,000 company employees, who reside in a village on the island.

If one is interested in a Mustique vacation, the Villa Opium seems particularly enticing – whether it is aptly named is another matter. In peak season, it is available for the mere $5,700 a night.

*All unlinked quotations are from “The Lord of Pleasure Island breaks his silence in an indiscreet and revealing interview,By SHARON CHURCHER, Mail Online, December 2009

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St. Vincent’s Venezuelan Alliance and High-End Tourism

Political alliances are not always what seem, given that member states can join for different reasons. Consider ALBA, the “Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America,” founded by Hugo Chavez and designed to counter the influence of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. The leaders of the core ALBA countries, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, are all noted for their anti-American rhetoric and opposition to the political and economic agenda of the U.S. The organization’s executive secretary recently framed its goals in unequivocal terms while speaking in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C.: “The existence of the alliance has provided sorely needed relief to over 70 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean from the predatory and parasitic trade and debt relationships imposed by U.S.-led imperialism.”

Such rhetoric, however, is not always acted upon. For Venezuela itself, the United States remains its top economic partner. And in the smaller ALBA countries, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in particular, the anti-American agenda of the alliance means little. As The Economist explains, St. Vincent’s membership in the club follows largely from economic considerations:

Not all of [ALBA’s] members are anti-American firebrands …. Some, like St Vincent and the Grenadines, are simply small Caribbean island nations looking for friends on all sides. In 2005 Ralph Gonsalves, its prime minister, brought the country of around 100,000 into PetroCaribe, Venezuela’s subsidised-credit scheme for oil exports. Four years later he signed up for ALBA itself. St Vincent has benefited from the relationship with cheaper fuel for electricity and with machines used in the construction of a new airport.

Membership in the alliance brings subsidies to cash-strapped St. Vincent and the Grenadines and allows Chavez to chalk up another member in his ostensibly anti-U.S. geopolitical block. As such, both sides see benefits to the arrangement. But Saint Vincent remains a parliamentary democracy, and Chavez’s politics have limited electoral appeal. In 2009, the country’s voters decisively rejected a plan to drop the British monarch as its official head of state, despite support for the measure from both major political parties. St. Vincent also has no desire to antagonize either the United States or the global economic elite, in part because high-end tourism has emerged as a mainstay of its economy.

Ironically, membership in ALBA enhances St. Vincent’s ability to reap profits from well-off tourists. The Argyle International Airport, under construction since 2008, is the cornerstone of the country’s economic strategy, as it will be able to accommodate the large jets needed to expand tourism. The civil engineering obstacles on the rugged island have raised the costs of the project to a staggering forty-four percent of total GDP; when the global economic crisis jeopardized funding, St. Vincent threw in its lot with ALBA. The resulting alliance has brought in the Cuban labor and the Venezuelan machinery and fuel necessary to complete the airport, promising a heightened flow of vacationers to a country that is already geared toward the top end of the market.

Wealthy tourists are attracted not so much to Saint Vincent itself as to the Grenadines, an archipelago stretching south almost to Grenada. The Grenadines include many small, idyllic islets perfectly suited for exclusive resorts. A number of the islands are privately owned, allowing privacy, seclusion, and ease for the well-heeled. A simple internet search of “St. Vincent private island” yields a number of tasteful websites promising paradise. Further development may be forthcoming. An advertisement in Private Islands Online, for example, offers Petit Nevis, a 71-acre speck of land, for a mere US$15,000,000. As the copy-writer explains:

There is a natural harbor in front of the island that is frequented by the many yachts that cruise through the Grenadines each year. The island is unoccupied and perfect for commercial development. . This part of the Caribbean is a haven for sailors and yachtsmen and some of the most beautiful boats in the world can be seen here. So, it’s a perfect location to cater to a very high-end clientele.

The future of Petite Nevis has generated controversy locally, in part because of the island’s historical role as a place to process whale carcasses. In fact, whale are still occasionally killed locally and flensed on the beach. But even if a sale of the islands brings resort development, it is unlikely that Petit Nevis’s clientele will ever be as “high-end” as that of Mustique Island, another private idyll in the Grenadines. As we shall see in the next post, Mustique is one of the most exclusive properties on the planet, a playground for the glitterati. Rather ironic that it should be located within the ALBA zone of countries ostensibly devoted to vanquishing Yankee imperialism and building “21st Century Socialism.”

*The same ironies apply to Cuba itself, where a tourism-focused economic strategy has led to the development of economic inequalities so significant that some observers describe the island’s current situation as one of “tourism apartheid.”

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Belize Vs. Guatemala

Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala
Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala

A major controversy engulfed the small Central American country of Belize in early January 2010 after its foreign minister, Wilifred Erlington, described the border between his country and Guatemala as “artificial.” Enraged Belizean nationalists denounced Erlington as a “sell-out,” while opposition leaders demanded his resignation.

As the border between Belize-Guatemala mostly follows a straight line, “artificial” might seem an appropriate word. Erlington defended himself along similar lines: “The first meaning of the word artificial in the dictionary is manmade but nobody seems to want to even read the dictionary these days.” Outraged nationalists were not mollified. Opposition leader Mark Espat replied that “Belizeans are frustrated and tired of disloyal double speak. We are tired of splitting hairs and litigating matters that should be straight forward. The issue is very simple: our border is real, the Foreign Minister should not be saying that our borders are artificial, he has shown a clear lack of political maturity in not accepting that he misspoke…” (

The controversy involves far more than semantics. Erlington’s opponents fear that his statement could play into Guatemala’s hands as the two countries remain embroiled in a territorial dispute. The Government of Guatemala has been reluctant even to accept Belize’s existence, arguing that area was rightfully Guatemalan territory before it was wrested away by Britain to form the colony of British Honduras. Although Guatemala recognized Belizean independence in 1991 (ten years after the British left), it has continued to put forth territorial claims. Maps of Guatemala (see above) occasionally depict Belize as if it were part of Guatemalan (see above).

Belize objects not only to its neighbor’s claims, but also to the fact that Guatemalans continue to illegally cross over into the much wealthier much less densely populated country of Belize. Due in part to such migration, the demography of multi-ethnic country of Belize is being transformed. According to the 2000 census, the Afro-Belizean (or Creole) community now accounts for only one quarter of the population, whereas mestizos form almost half. Another 10 percent are Mayan Indians, while over 6 percent are Garifuna (a people of mostly African descent who speak a Native American language).

The most interesting aspect of Belizean demography, however, concerns contemporary birthrates; the ethnic group with the highest fertility rate appears to be the Euro-Belizeans. The White population of Belize is not large; one Wikipedia article puts it at a full zero ( Contrary to this figure, Belize does have a small population of European extraction, including almost 10,000 Mennonite settlers. The Mennonite birthrate is reportedly 42.5 per thousand, as against 31 per thousand for the country as a whole. These religiously conservative farmers are classified as “Russian Mennonites,” even though their ancestors came originally from the Netherlands and they still speak a Low German dialect. The migration history of the Mennonites is a fascinating story in itself, put that is a topic for a later post.

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