For many wealthy tourists around the world, the Caribbean islands seem like the perfect vacation getaway. Spring breakers, honeymooners and retirees all flock to the golden sands to bathe in crystal clear waters and soak up some sun. Last year alone the Caribbean had 25 million tourists. However, it might be surprising that the murder rates in the Caribbean region are higher than in any other region of the world.

Beyond the protected walls of the all-inclusive hotels, crime, violence and poverty plague the populations of these Caribbean nations. While tourism may be growing back to pre-recession levels in pockets of resorts, the majority of the population continues to battle with rising rape, murder and poverty levels. The Dominican Republic, for example, receives the most tourists of all the Caribbean Islands, yet it ranks as the third poorest Caribbean country with a gross domestic product per capita of only $9,700.

Jamaica similarly represents this paradox; though Bob Marley’s music resonates peace and love around the world, today Jamaica is known for its widespread poverty and high gun crime. In fact, in 2006, 75.2% of all murders committed in Jamaica involved the use of guns.

A report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean discusses the complexity of poverty and its multilevel impacts on Caribbean countries. Poverty affects societies on a social, cultural, psychological and political level, resulting in increased crime and violence. Nations easily become entangled in a vicious cycle that perpetuates these problems. Poverty causes crime and violence, which then further inhibits a country’s growth and development, thus leading to more poverty and inequality.

Social inequality and poverty in the Caribbean date back to colonialism, as the slave trade created a lasting impact on the social order and economic system of many islands. Back then, social tensions and inequality existed between peninsulares, Spanish-born Spaniards and Creoles and those with European decent born in the new colonies. Today, the situation remains relatively unchanged, as some of the largest businesses are still owned by white families who continue to reap the benefits of the plantation profits.

The violent past has indeed scarred the Caribbean region, creating a deeply divided society brewing with bitter resentment. Not surprisingly, many Caribbean nations seek slavery reparations from European countries, like Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom. They hope to restore some kind of moral justice and initiate development plans to help improve communities still suffering from the effects of slavery.

So there is hope of breaking the vicious cycle. Poverty in the Caribbean can be reduced from an institutional level by supporting education, providing family support and improving health facilities in impoverished areas. On an economic level, trade integrations can stimulate the Caribbean economy by generating jobs and alleviating poverty.

Providing a safe and productive outlet for families to make a living keeps people off the streets and away from crime and violence. The United States can encourage mutually beneficial trade relations that create jobs and build foreign markets while simultaneously restoring the social and economic stability of popular vacation spots.

– Gloria Kostadinova

Photo: Star Wars of the Caribbean
ECLAC, World Bank, Bloomberg, The Guardian