The coastal seas are rich in marine life, including turtles, shellfish, caiman, dolphin, red snapper, bonito, and flying fish. Marine life is largely unexploited for food. The population of the West Indies is ethnically heterogeneous and largely the legacy of an early plantation society based on slave labour. Most of the population is descended from enslaved Africans or from Spanish, French, British, or Dutch colonists or is of mixed ethnicity. The West Indies’ creole languages, evolved from pidgin variants of European languages, have become the common languages of many of the people.
To reduce vulnerability to external markets, many countries have diversified their agricultural production. Manufacturing in the West Indies accounts for a minor part of overall economic activity. Several countries, including Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, have developed significant mineral industries, with the chief mineral exports being bauxite from Jamaica and petroleum from Trinidad.
Among the dependent states, foreign subsidies and remittances provide a major source of income. Tourism has become the major industry on some islands and a major source of foreign exchange. Often, however, it raises the local cost of living without producing much employment. It is also quick to decline during times of economic recession. Cuba has endeavoured to break the usual pattern of economic dependence on one or two main cash crops so common in the West Indies. Traditionally dependent on the sugar industry, it has attempted to diversify its economy by increasing its imports of capital goods to use as the basis for new industries. In an attempt to overcome problems of small size and dependence on a few export items, the Caribbean countries have formed economic unions, including the Central American Common Market, which established a regional free-trade zone; the Caribbean Community (Caricom), which promotes cooperation between English-speaking countries; and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, whose members, as signatories of the Lomé Convention of 1975, receive preferential tariffs from the European Union.
The outer arc—running from Anguilla to Barbados—is made up of low, flat islands whose limestone surfaces overlie older volcanic or crystalline rocks. The West Indies have a tropical maritime climate. Daily maximum temperatures over most of the region range from the mid-80s F (upper 20s C) from December to April to the upper 80s F (low 30s C) from May to November.
Subscribe Now A large number of plant species in the Caribbean are indigenous to the region. At high elevations in the Greater Antilles, species more typical of midlatitude and subarctic flora are found. Land fauna is an impoverished version of the fauna found on the nearby South American mainland. There are many rodents, including the rabbitlike agouti, and numerous species of bats and lizards. Bird species include several parrots, hummingbirds, ibis, and flamingos.
Weak and unstable foreign markets have contributed to the generally unfavourable international-trade accounts of many West Indian countries. The per capita gross national product (GNP) of the countries in the region ranged in the early 21st century from less than $400 in Haiti (well below the world average) to more than $30, 000 in Cuba (comparable to the per capita GNP of many western European countries) and more than $24, 000 in the U. S.
Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Spanish- and French-speaking islands, while Protestantism is the norm in the English-speaking and Dutch territories. The region’s birth rate historically has been low in comparison with those of other less-developed countries. Emigration, moreover, has played a more significant role in the West Indies than in most other regions, having the effect of dampening population growth even more. Emigration was substantial throughout the 20th century, and more than half of the natural increase in the region was lost owing to emigration. On the other hand, the death rate also declined steadily in the second half of the century, primarily because of reductions in the rate of infant mortality, and remained comparatively low for a less-developed region of the world.
About three-fifths of the West Indies’ population is urban, and the rural population has dwindled on many islands because of considerable rural-to-urban migration. With the exception of Cuba, which has a centrally planned economy, the West Indies can be characterized as a predominantly free-enterprise market region. The economies of the region are marked by dependence on the export of a few commodities, commonly agricultural, and consequently are extremely vulnerable to external economic events.
The French and English creoles are a blend of these languages with African and West Indian languages. By contrast, the major Spanish-language communities—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic—speak pure Spanish. Papiamentu, a Spanish-Dutch (Netherlandic)-Portuguese-English creole, is widely spoken on Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire. South Asians constitute a substantial minority in the region, especially in Trinidad and Tobago, where they make up almost four-tenths of the population. Chinese constitute a smaller minority, and people of European (principally Spanish) descent account for some seven-tenths of the population of Puerto Rico.