The Caribbean’s story will always be one of land and water. The waterways help define the culture, events and day-to-day business activity just as much as the land. But while the history of each nation in our region is well known, many people are yet to encounter the amazing story of its waterways and operations. With the Caribbean seeing a variety of new developments in this space — from the positives of a new cruise ship port in Vieux Fort to the concerns of rising piracy — it’s a fitting time to look at the past, present and future of regional waters.
The Caribbean’s Waterways at a Glance
Caribbean waters are a hub of activity, utilised daily by cruise liners, fisheries and commercial ships as well as recreational boaters, fishers and light seacraft like jet skis. As an area of island states, the sea and the efficient use of it are vital to ongoing prosperity and progress, especially given that the majority of goods arrive via importation. Though the advent of airplanes has changed this dynamic, even today over 90 per cent of goods imported to the region arrives by ship. The high cost of transport — commonly around three times as high to transport when compared to other regions — means those who utilise regional waterways have always had to contend with a higher expense of doing so.
The upgrading of port infrastructure, dredging of harbours, and improvement of shipping and logistics processes are all key components of addressing this imbalance, and have been pursued alongside great progress in maritime growth.
The Ebbs and Flows of the Region
Owing to its history since European settlement, the Caribbean was always set to be a complex network of shipping routes and logistical operations. This continues to be seen today. The relative youth of Caribbean nations compared to old and historic nations throughout the Americas, means the capacity for growth and improvement of efficiencies remains real, despite the history of red tape and high expense.
The Port of Kingston’s ascent in this space has been a regional success story. The sheer size of Latin America’s biggest nations, like Brazil and Mexico, ensures that their respective ports of Santos and Manzanillo will long be among the upper echelons of commercial shipping activity in the region. Yet the Port of Kingston’s overtake of the Port of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2014 to become the seventh biggest in the region, has been complemented by the performance of Freeport in the Bahamas and Caucedo in the Dominican Republic as regional shipping epicentres.
Given the proximity of all Caribbean nations to Panama’s ports of Balboa and Colon — in 2016 ranked Latin America’s 2nd and 3rd biggest by activity and shipping respectively, at 2.9 and 2.3 million units per year — the region is beginning to reap immense dividends due to its positioning as ‘the gateway to the West’, via the Panama Canal, for booming Asian economies.
And alongside the progress of ports as a whole, tides have turned swiftly around individual businesses. Recent months have seen Global Ports — the largest global cruise port operator — strike a 30-year deal with Antigua and Barbuda, and a 25-year deal with the Port of Nassau in the Bahamas, promising in both instances to upgrade not only existing port infrastructure, but the surrounding vicinity, providing new retail and entertainment offerings throughout.
While there are many positives here, there are also storm clouds gathering around the future of Caribbean ports and waterways.
Keeping Sea Lanes of Communication Open
Since the end of World War II, international waters have, by and large, been open, but historically this was not always so. Throughout major conflicts, including World War I and the American Revolutionary War, efforts to blockade and cut out a rival’s access to other nations was pursued. Today we’re seeing similar tensions in Asia as China seeks to expand its territorial claim to waters. Ultimately, territorial squabbles in Asia are unlikely to have a direct bearing on Caribbean waters any time soon, but the activities of the Chinese government in this region will.
Alongside the construction of critical infrastructure on land, like highways in Jamaica, Beijing’s fingerprints on port works in Suriname’s capital of Paramaribo, and in Freeport in the Bahamas, have been met with unease by anyone who considers the question: For all the money it’s injecting into the region, what does China want from the Caribbean family?
Whatever the future holds, the lessons of history here are vivid, and reflect a trend we are seeing widely in international politics. Just because an issue has been dead or dormant for many decades, doesn’t mean it can’t come roaring back. Alongside the Chinese government’s activities, the Venezuela and Guyana territorial dispute is a key example of this, one that many continue to watch nervously, given the present unpredictability in Caracas.
Progress at What Price?
While having free-flowing sea lanes is advantageous most of the time, it can sometimes be an issue. The difficulty of combatting the drug trade in the region illustrates this. So too, the ongoing struggle for the international community to deal with global issues: from ships that illegally pollute, to jurisdiction-evasive crimes that occur in international waters, to the impact of climate change.
These particular issues don’t require a reunification of the longstanding tradition of free movement across the seas, but they do require in-depth consideration over the fact, that the principles that have been applied to free use of the oceans, largely pre-date the rise of our current era of borderless economic trade.
Seeking Safe Harbour
An examination of the Caribbean’s maritime highways today reveals a region in transition. In some measures, the future of Caribbean nations in their waterways is bright. Here in Saint Lucia, annual increases in tourism, and major capital works projects that are underway, point to increasing efficiency and optimisation of operations on the water. But even allowing for the progress seen in this nation and elsewhere, there remain significant issues with expense and inefficiency. These problems won’t be resolved overnight, but pursuing more effective remedies to them cannot wait forever. Even if the region’s future growth is largely clear sailing now, tides can turn unexpectedly.