Over the past two decades, the Caribbean has enjoyed a relatively strong track record of political stability in a largely democratic framework. Unlike other parts of the world, coups, assassinations, and socio-political upheaval have not been the norm. But there are exceptions to this: the failed state in Haiti and the weak state in Cuba. In both cases, prospects for improvement anytime soon are dubious.
At the same time, the rest of the Caribbean is not immune to some of the same pressures, including an upsurge in violent crime and corruption, fueled by easy access to guns from the U.S. and the spread of transnational criminal organizations operating out of Venezuela, another failed state. Citizens throughout the region are increasingly disillusioned by the seeming inability of their governments to come to grips with violent crimes which is eroding the democracy brand. For policymakers in Washington, these are major geopolitical concerns that are most likely to intensify.
Haiti: The Failed State
What is a failed state? To paraphrase political scientist Robert I. Rotberg, a failed state occurs when the government loses legitimacy due to its inability to deliver political goods to its citizens (such as law and order or basic amenities like water and power), accompanied by a breakdown into violence that leads to fragmented political authority. The most critical political good is human security, which ranges from the protection of national borders to “[enabling] citizens to resolve their disputes with the state and with their fellow inhabitants without recourse to arms or other forms of physical coercion.” Weak states suffer many of the same problems as failed states, but manage to stagger from crisis to crisis without a total collapse.
The Caribbean’s failed state is Haiti, a country pummeled by a long avalanche of negative events, both natural and political. An archaic land tenure system combined with the long-term absence of coherent government development initiatives has left much of the large rural sector to fend for itself since the nineteenth century. This has led to widespread deforestation, as Haitians have turned to chopping down trees to make charcoal for energy. Haiti now has an estimated 98 percent of forest cleared for fuel, stripping away topsoil, which facilitates repeated floods. Frequent devastating hurricanes have also hit the island. Furthermore, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010 left considerable long-lasting damage. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded, and resulted in between 100,000 and 300,000 people killed as well as leveling much of the country’s infrastructure. Further damaging earthquakes hit Haiti in 2018 and 2021.
While Mother Nature has contributed much to Haiti’s long slide into a failed state, the unraveling of the country’s political system has been just as devastating. Haitian politics have a track record of autocratic governments, interrupted by periods of attempted democratization and frequent political breakdowns. The period between 2018 and 2023 has been particularly onerous, marked by ongoing riots and demonstrations, a near-paralysis of the formal political system, major corruption scandals, the bloody rise of criminal gangs (estimated to number around 200), and the shocking assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. The erosion of state authority is most evident in the power of the gangs, which conduct kidnappings, seize fuel depots and as of mid-2023 probably control more than half of Port-au-Prince, the capital. An ongoing stream of guns from the United States has not helped matters.
To the dismal political backdrop, the Haitian economy has limped along, with most foreign companies pulling out, aid programs suspended, and public services stopped in many places. In 2023, the International Monetary Fund noted that “Haiti faces a challenging macroeconomic outlook amid a dire humanitarian crisis”—a situation complicated by food inflation caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War that broke out in February 2022.
Considering the above, Haiti’s woes represent a complicated geopolitical problem for the rest of the Caribbean, which is largely unprepared to handle a failed state. The challenge comes in the form of large numbers of Haitians seeking to escape by mitigating elsewhere. While many of them head by boat to the United States, others are seeking to make it north by traversing the Darien jungle between South and Central America and showing up on the Mexican border with the United States. Still others are heading to the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname, where social and healthcare systems are already stretched as well after being hit by waves of Venezuelan refugees.
For the international community, Haiti is a difficult challenge. In the past three decades, there have been three full-scale international interventions, none of which was a sustained success. The United States, Canada, France, and the United Nations have all unsuccessfully sought to help Haiti. This, in turn, has resulted in donor fatigue in working with Haiti, a crisis that never seems to go away. In 2023 efforts to induce Kenya to lead a new intervention offered some hope, but such a mission faces considerable challenges, such as whom to work with on the ground in Haiti. Indeed, the deep state decay and corruption on the island-state have been contributing factors to the hesitancy of the international community to commit. Within the Caribbean, the fifteen members of CARICOM (Caribbean Community) have demonstrated a flaccid response to the failed state in their midst, despite Haiti being a member of the regional bloc.
Sadly, Haiti’s descent into failed statehood is likely to continue, with an ongoing fragmentation of political authority to the gangs. This is akin to Somalia’s descent, which began in 1992 and has continued through today. As long-time Haiti watcher, Georges Fauriol, noted: “Undoubtedly a coherent, sustained international response is urgently needed, particularly in driving toward an identifiable ‘roadmap’ initialed by Haitians themselves. This should be the center of international efforts as Haiti policy stumbles into 2023.” It is possible that the same analysis will apply to Haiti in 2024.
Cuba: The Weak State
While Haiti has many of the attributes of a failed state, Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is sliding in the same direction. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Cuba has been in an almost perpetual state of economic crisis. Despite that the Cuban Communist Party remains very much in control. President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a life-long regime insider who succeeded Raúl Castro, presides over a state that is increasingly failing its citizens in terms of meeting basic human needs. A combination of the U.S. economic embargo (in place since the 1960s), gross economic mismanagement, corruption, and ongoing opposition to private sector enterprise, Cuba entered the 2020s economically adrift. While some help came from China and Russia, Cuba has been unable to find a sponsor like the Soviet Union or Venezuela (in the 2000s and 2010s) to prop up its failed socialist economic experiment, with its survivalist state bent on maintaining its political-military-bureaucratic elite in power through its monopoly of armed force.
Under Díaz-Canel’s stewardship, the country’s problems have worsened, which was reflected by the brutal 2021 devaluation of the two-decade-old currency system. The mix of the devaluation and concerns over food security (already pinched in recent years) were then hit by inflationary food prices from the Russo-Ukrainian war. For a country that imports between 70 and 80 percent of its food, higher international prices hurt. Since 2020 inflation has been persistently high, adding to the pressure on household budgets. According to the World Bank, inflation hit 401.6 percent in 2021—one of the highest in the Americas and it has remained high since.
Cubans have responded to economic stagnation by either migrating, putting off having children, or sporadically opposing the regime. Indeed, over 340,000 Cubans, many of them working age, have come to the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border since the 2022 fiscal year commenced. The outbound nature of a youthful segment of the population raises some chilling prospects for the island—its demographic profile is closer to Italy or Spain, two countries with sharp population decline, than the rest of the Caribbean. Cuba faces a future of a shrinking labor pool and rising numbers of elderly people, who will put greater pressure on pensions and the healthcare system (one of the country’s few bright lights). Unlike Italy and Spain, Cuba is poor.
While there is no armed resistance to the Cuban state, there is a strong undercurrent of discontent, which spilled over in July 2021, when the country was rocked by demonstrations that emerged from popular anger largely due to the brutal deterioration of everyday living conditions. Significantly, the July demonstrations were the first major outburst of popular discontent since the 1960s. The government’s response was to crack down, arresting over 1,500 protesters and handing down harsh sentences. Considering that the Cuban economy continues to be deeply troubled, the socio-political landscape remains tense, with the potential propensity for further protests.
Cuba’s economic problems and the steady erosion of the communist regime’s legitimacy clearly have geopolitical implications. Both China and Russia have a presence on the island either through economic relationships (with Russia signing several deals in July 2023) or intelligence gathering, and it has been suggested more than once that there is the potential for either Beijing or Moscow to have a military presence on the island. At the same time, it is doubtful that either China or Russia has the intention to subsidize the lingering Cuban socialist experiment.