THE STRATEGIC SETTING
The proximity of the region to the United States and the many
key passages (choke points) and vital sea-lanes running through the
Lesser Antilles and Bahamian archipelago and through the Greater
Antilles make the Commonwealth Caribbean a strategically
significant part of the world and thus an arena of international
power competition. Until a revolution brought Fidel Castro to power
in Cuba in 1959, the hegemony of the United States in the Caribbean
had been unchallenged since the late nineteenth century. In October
1962, the Soviet Union challenged that hegemony and threatened the
United States by attempting to install ballistic missiles in Cuba.
Although the United States forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its
missiles, during the 1970s and 1980s the Soviets developed the
island into a Soviet base and the Cuban military into one of the
most powerful in Latin America. Furthermore, Soviet naval
deployments to the Caribbean, which had been nonexistent until
1969, became an annual or semiannual event.
Bounded by the Bahamas in the north and Barbados in the east,
the Caribbean is one vast natural chain commanding the trade routes
running between the Atlantic and Pacific and from north to south
(see fig. 20). Controlling both ends of this natural barrier would
be a clear strategic advantage. There are thirteen key sea-lanes in
the Caribbean, eleven of which lie between the smaller islands and
are deep enough to be used by any ship afloat. The relatively
narrow passages in the Caribbean constitute choke points through
which merchant or naval shipping must pass in transiting to and
from North America's Gulf ports and the Atlantic Ocean. Should
these passages come under hostile control, sea traffic could be
seriously impeded or blocked.
In the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, a navigable area of
more than 2,156,500 square kilometers, the 13 major high-density
sea-lanes pass through 4 major choke points--the Yucattttaaán
Channel, Windward Passage, Old Bahamas Channel, and Straits of
Florida--all of which are vulnerable to Cuban interdiction. The
Straits of Florida, Mona Passage, Windward Passage, and Yucatán
Channel are the main gateways for vessels entering or leaving the
Caribbean, and the Straits of Florida provide the only open-sea
connection for the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers entering the Caribbean
from the Persian Gulf and West Africa mainly use three passages:
Galleons Passage, Old Bahamas Channel, and Providence Channel.
There are a number of lesser passages as well.
Once the United States became the dominant power in the
Caribbean, it began taking the region for granted as its "backyard"
or the "American Mediterranean." Consequently, the United States
often underestimated the region and rarely accorded it priority in
its foreign and security policies. After the Grenada intervention
in late October 1983, the United States began significantly
increasing assistance to RSS member states to improve regional
security capabilities, as well as to improve their capabilities for
narcotics interdiction and search and rescue operations. This aid
consisted of training and the provision of coast guard vessels and
light infantry equipment. Although capable of dealing with regional
security threats such as a mercenary attack or a rebellion, the RSS
in the late 1980s was no defense against possible future military
aggression by Cuba.
Britain's only significant military presence in the Western
Hemisphere was its sizable force in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands
and its 1,800-member force in Belize, including Royal Air Force
units. As head of the Commonwealth of Nations, however, Britain was
still one of the most important influences in the English-speaking
Caribbean (see Appendix B). Although no longer responsible for the
defense and security of most Commonwealth members in the region,
Britain continued to maintain a Royal Navy ship in the area and to
provide advisers and financing for RSS coast guard shore
facilities, as well as police training for 200 Caribbean nationals
a year at British military and security establishments.
Britain showed its flag in the region on January 19, 1987, by
dispatching 10 Royal Navy warships carrying 4,000 sailors for 3
months of Caribbean exercises. The forces were scheduled to engage
mostly in antisubmarine warfare operations and North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) war games. Britain's defense chief,
Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, paid a two-day visit to the Bahamas
that February for "routine talks on matters of mutual interest."
In contrast to Britain, France maintained a permanent and
relatively powerful military presence in the region in its
departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana.
Nevertheless, France traditionally had not interfered in the
affairs of its English-speaking neighbors in the Eastern Caribbean.
Data as of November 1987