Most people dream of a Caribbean getaway - I know I do. I’d much rather be writing this from a Caribbean island than from a sweltering Manhattan high rise. For many, including myself, it is the perfect vacation spot.
While Stella may have gotten her groove back there, ‘the Islands’ are more than just beautiful bodies and coconut drinks with tiny umbrellas. The true Caribbean looks quite different than the one viewed from the shoreline and through the bottom of a shot glass. Although lux resorts, rum and swim up bars are part of the fun, the Caribbean’s problems and identity are often eclipsed by the resort stereotype.
So, here are 20 facts about the white sand paradise that will hopefully expand your tropical horizons on your next vacation.
1. The Caribbean has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world
According to UNAIDS, nearly 250,000 people in the Caribbean are HIV positive - the highest concentration of people in the world outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is the number one killer of adults aged 15-44 in the region. In the United States, the virus doesn’t even break the the top 10 killers in any demographic.
2. Three Caribbean islands are part of the European Union
As vestiges of the colonial era, the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana are considered three of the 27 regions of France. Thus, they are represented members of the European Union, use the Euro as their currency, and are allowed to vote in both the French and European Parliaments.
3. The Antilles are constantly fighting to have their voices heard by the international community regarding international and development issues
The challenges faced by the region - healthcare, poverty eradication, climate change, sustainability, economic integration - are subject to global amnesia because few people ever venture outside of the fences of their resort. If we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need eradicate it everywhere including in the shadow of our vacation resorts.
4. The Caribbean has significant rates of violent crimes
Some Caribbean nations, like Turks and Caicos are some of the safest areas in the world. Others, like Jamaica, are some of the most dangerous. The United Nations recently reported that crime and violence were the greatest threats to development in the region, even on safer islands such as Barbados and Puerto Rico. Women are disproportionately effected by violence with extremely high rates of domestic abuse and rape coupled by low convictions rates. In Jamaica, for instance, the conviction rate for violent crimes is a dismal 5%.
5. Your hotel maid is the most vulnerable person you will meet
The majority of the victims of violence crimes in the Caribbean are season staff aka those employed at the resorts we vacation. That means the likelihood your maid, bartender or taxi driver has been a victim of a violent crime is frighteningly high. Think about that next time you ask the pool boy for extra towels.
6. Many Caribbean countries have made significant improvements in eradicating extreme poverty and reaching the MDGs
In the case of the English-speaking Caribbean countries, poverty declined significantly during the 1990s. In Guyana and Jamaica the poverty rate dropped by 10 percentage points from 1991 to 2001. This data indicates both countries, along with several other Caribbean nations, should be able to meet their targeted Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
7. The 51st US state might be a Caribbean island
One of the most, shall we say, touchy subjects in American politics is the status of Puerto Rico. Technically a Commonwealth of the United States, citizens of Puerto Rico are American citizens but don’t pay federal income tax or vote for President or Congress. Puerto Ricans have historically favored independence over statehood. But in 2012 something surprising happened - Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood for the first time in history. Only the federal Congress can grant statehood, which it has not done since it admitted Hawaii in 1959. Check out the American flag next time you see it, there may be one extra Caribbean star.
8. The Caribbean has high concentrations of human slaves
If you have been to the Dominican Republic like me and three-quarters of spring break aged adults, then you have been to the Caribbean hub for the slave industry. More than 1.8 million people are trafficked each year in the Caribbean spread across dozens of islands. Trafficking is so rampant that in French speaking parts of the area there is a special word for an accepted form of child slavery, restavec. Translated into English the word means “one who stays with” - and apparently never leaves.
9. Thousands of Caribbean children are considered malnourished
Contrary to the all you can eat buffet at many all inclusive resort, millions of Caribbean people have insufficient access to food. While malnutrition indicators vary across the Caribbean, some of the island nations have some of the worst rates of malnutrition in the world. In Grenada, for instance, more than 60% of preschool aged children are considered anaemic - an indicator of malnutrition.
10. Haiti is not only the poorest country in the Caribbean, it is the poorest in the entire Western Hemisphere
Unfortunately, this probably does not come as a surprise to many. Haiti has historically been one of the region’s worse off nations. More than two-thirds of Haitians do not have formal jobs and the countries is ranked 171 out of 193 by the United Nations by its GDP per capita.
11. Mother Nature is going to seriously ruin your vacation
The climate change stakes are high for the Caribbean. The cost of inaction will reach an astonishing 75 percent or more of GDP in Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, St. Kitts & Nevis and Turks & Caicos. All those white sand beaches could be gone too. The World Bank recently stated that a 1 meter rise in sea level could destroy sixty percent of the coastal wetlands in the Caribbean.
12. The Caribbean is becoming a drug lord’s paradise
Almost one fifth of cocaine imports to the United States came through the Caribbean last year. The region is experiencing the “balloon effect” caused when increased pressure on one drug route produces a shift to alternatives. The decades long “war on drugs” in Central and South America has caused drug kingpins to change pushing their supply through Mexico to hustling cocaine via Caribbean islands.
13. Sex trafficking is the silent crime of the Caribbean
Due to the infamy of the Caribbean sex tourism industry, human trafficking has been a problem in the region for decades. HIV is largely thought to have been brought to the region (and subsequently to the United States) by way of the sex tourism industry in the 1980s. According to a US Congressional report 44% of victims trafficked for forced labor are from the region - a higher share than either Europe or Central Asia.
14. More babies, more problems
High birth rates are pretty good indicators of poor development. While some countries in the Caribbean have fertility rates at the accepted global replacement level of 2.1 children per family, others have rates comparable to parts of Africa. Haiti’s rate is well over 3, St. Vincent’s and the Grenadines is 2.4, and Jamaica’s is 2.3.
15. There is life beyond the walls of the compound
Caribbeans can party for days, weeks, even whole months. Crop Over Festival in Barbados lasts all of July and August. Have you seen pictures of Carnival in Trinidad? Literal insanity. Apparently no places celebrates St. Patrick’s Day like the Irish-Catholic community of Montserrat. The Raggae Festival in Jamaica. St. Sebastian Day in Puerto Rico. The Merengue Festival in the Dominican Republic. The list is actually endless. Unfortunately, people often miss out on these amazing national parties because they simply don’t know about them.
16. Cuba is listed by the US as one of only four other state sponsors of terrorism
Cuba’s existence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is much like playing a game of which one of these is not like the other. Along with Sudan, Syria, and Iran, Cuba is one of only four countries officially labeled by the US State Department as supportive of terrorist activities. Admittedly, Cuba has harbored Spanish-Basque separatists terrorist but just like the embargo many have called for an end to the blacklisting of Havana.
17. Belize, Guyana and Suriname confuse cartographers
The Central American country of Belize and the northern, South American countries of Guyana and Suriname are often associated with the rest of the Caribbean even though they’re located on the Central and South American mainland. While they are not islands, their cultures closely mirror Caribbean culture as opposed to the cultures of Central or South American. And so do their accents.
18. There are six official languages in the Caribbean
As a result of Caribbean islands being steamrolled by European colonial powers and the slave trade, indigenous, European and African traditions blended to form one of the greatest multicultural areas on the planet. Most people know Spanish and English are major Caribbean languages thanks to the importation of Daddy Yankee and Rasta music. But many would be surprised that Dutch, French Creole, Haitian Creole and Papiamento (Portuguese Creole) are also officially recognized languages in the Caribbean.
19. The Caribbean is largely uninhabited
There are over 700 major islands in the Caribbean. If you include every land mass there are thousands of islands and cays which make up the nations in the region. Technically the Bahamas has 2,000 islands alone. But only 2% of all Caribbean islands are inhabited.
20. The United States might not exist without Haiti
When the British attempted to land at Yorktown, Virginia, George Washington evoked the help of the French navy who sent ships from their Caribbean colony of St. Domingue, present day Haiti. Without the French-Haitian ships sent to assist George Washington the Americans may never have beaten the British at the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive battle in the American Revolution.
21. 13 Caribbean islands are considered parts of the UK, USA, and the Netherlands
Every single island in the Caribbean was a European or American colony at one point in time. Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were almost made states in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Some countries were colonies of multiple powers and some were divided (St. Martin and St. Maarten are two halves of the same island which is still shared by the Dutch and the French). There are still thirteen islands in the Caribbean which are part of the United States (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), the United Kingdom (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands), and the Netherlands (Aruba, Curacao, Sint Maarten, Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius).