CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

The Central American and circum-Caribbean region is an ecological, human, and material corridor of great relevance to hemispheric exchanges, both historically and contemporarily. A point of transition between north and south, the region literally bridges the two parts of the continent, allowing for their distinctive characters, while establishing its own. The implications are multiple, biological as well as political, social as well as economic.
For Tulane University, Central America and the circum-Caribbean have long held historical relevance. It was in this area that the University first established Latin American expertise through archaeological and anthropological research and exploration dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. This in turn reflected the region’s connection to New Orleans and its port, a natural gateway for the region thanks to its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi. Trade and transportation routes have long generated flows of goods and people from the region, contributing to the development of business and the establishment of migrant communities with significant transnational ties.

To the U.S. as a whole Central America and the circum-Caribbean have also had longstanding historical relevance. In the nineteenth century the region was seen as coextensive with national interests, not merely as a part of the U.S.’s sphere of influence, but perhaps even as a frontier for the fulfillment of its “manifest destiny” of continental expansion. This led to unfortunate incidents of filibustering, most notoriously under William Walker, who lived briefly in New Orleans, and later, intervention in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. The U.S. continued to assert its preeminence in the region throughout the twentieth century, starting with the 1903 intervention that led to the independence of Panama, followed a year later by the takeover of the transoceanic canal project, a global strategic asset that it developed and then controlled until the end of the century. The U.S. intervened militarily throughout the region over the ensuing decades, including in Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti, with covert operations also occurring in Guatemala and Cuba, and later in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Such a level and kind of intervention has had longstanding implications for how the region views the United States.

U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America in general, and Central America and the circum-Caribbean in particular, has consistently posited the strategic relevance of the area on the basis of its location and proximity to the U.S.. The Monroe Doctrine claimed the area as its exclusive sphere of interest, and its subsequent restatements–the Platt Amendment, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Truman and Johnson Doctrines–served as justifications for intervention, military or otherwise, to protect the U.S. from external threats, perceived or real. U.S. leaders constantly reasserted the strategic significance of the region, including President Johnson, who justified intervention in the Dominican Republic by referring to it as “our doorstep”, and President Reagan, who did the same by labeling Central America as “our own backyard”. More positive policy responses, like Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, or Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, were premised on the notion that the U.S. would benefit by addressing the structural causes of regional social and political unrest, fostering economic and political development.
Regional conflicts receded at the end of the 1980s and countries completed their transitions to democracy and market economies as the Cold War and the economic shocks of the 1970s retreated and finally ended. This created new opportunities and challenges. Economic growth increased with trade and investment, driving improvements in general wellbeing. But poverty and inequality levels remained high and state capabilities low. Crime rates and violence surged to some of the highest levels in the world with the proliferation of gangs and the arrival of drug cartels. The challenges emerging from the region were now of a different nature, characterized by having domestic as well as international dimensions, with the implication that they could not be solved by a single party, not even the regional hegemon, instead requiring a multilateral approach. This was the case of immigration, transnational crime, and environmental degradation.

U.S. interest in the region waned in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the focus shifted to the War on Terror, policy towards the region was dominated by security concerns, particularly with regard to drugs and immigration. The framework of a “war” on drugs set the policy onus on the supply side–eradication and interdiction–doing little to prevent demand, relying mostly on the use of repressive and militaristic tactics. At the same time, domestic political pressures to “secure the border” drove policies towards erecting physical and technological barriers to prevent border crossings, while a comprehensive immigration reform could not garner sufficient political support to pass in a polarized political climate. Regional engagement otherwise focused mostly on trade and investment, with the signing of a free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic, and later with Panama.
As the U.S. fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempted to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, subsequently, “pivoted” to Asia, Central America and the circum-Caribbean appeared to fade out of focus. Extra regional powers benefitted from the area’s opening, with China developing strong economic and political ties throughout the region, and Russia and Iran doing the same with Venezuela and its ALBA partners. Battered by the Great Recession, American regional predominance, let alone hegemony, was seriously questioned as Russia conducted joint military maneuvers with Venezuela and Chinese investors announced their intention to build a new transoceanic canal through Nicaragua. Countries in the region, buoyed by strong commodity prices, also asserted greater autonomy from the U.S. forming new regional institutions that excluded it and distancing themselves from American foreign policy objectives. This became particularly poignant in the case of Cuba where U.S. efforts to isolate the country economically through its longstanding embargo while excluding it from regional and diplomatic fora have faced continued and growing regional opposition.

Most recently, the appearance of thousands of Central American child migrants at the U.S. border fleeing the violence and despondency of their hometowns, brought the region’s relevance back into perspective. While geopolitical realities and the terms of engagement have changed, the United States and the circum-Caribbean are linked inextricably. The challenges the region faces are not solely its own, nor will the effects of success or failure confronting them be confined to it alone. These challenges are extremely complex, with deep historical roots, that defy simplistic solutions.

Some key general research questions in this area include the following:

  • How can Central America and the circum-Caribbean best confront the drug trade and transnational crime, including ways that focus on prevention and community engagement What are the terms for a more fruitful collaboration with the U.S. in this area? What are the potential costs and benefits for the region of drug legalization?
  • How may countries in the region foster state strength, enhancing their ability to confront crime and build strong economies, while ensuring the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and the respect for human rights?
  • How can countries in Central America and the circum-Caribbean develop greater resilience as they confront increasingly extreme weather events in a region greatly susceptible to the effects of global warming? What are the bases for building sustainable development in Central America and the circum Caribbean? What is the region’s potential for developing green economies? How may countries best take advantage of existent sources of renewable energy?
  • How may countries articulate the triple challenge of increasing economic growth, promoting social inclusion, and confronting climate change? How can countries reverse the loss of human capital and the social dislocation generated by migration? What are the regional implications of deepening social and political conflict in Mexico?
  • What are the challenges for democratic consolidation in the region and how might they be confronted? How do they affect the prospects for deeper regional integration? What would be the regional implications of a deepening internal conflict in Venezuela?
  • How likely is Cuba to follow a belated transition to democracy and the market? Will the economic changes adopted by Raúl Castro continue to deepen or will they backtrack? What alternatives exist for a more constructive U.S. engagement of Cuba and the opening of a post-embargo era?
  • What are the challenges posed by the potential development of a transoceanic canal in Nicaragua and how might they be confronted? More broadly, does the Chinese and Russian presence in the region imply potential risks in the case of a deeper strategic cleavage of those powers with the West?




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Upcoming Events

Chantalle Verna to Present Research on U.S. and Haitian Relationships in Post-Occupation Haiti

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Join us at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies in welcoming Dr. Chantalle Verna for a talk on her book Haiti and the Uses of America: Post- U.S. Occupation Promises on April 26, 2018, at 6:00 PM.

In her book, Dr. Verna makes evident that there have been key moments of cooperation that contributed to nation-building in both countries. Dr. Verna emphasizes the importance of examining the post-occupation period: the decades that followed the U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915-34) and considering how Haiti’s public officials and privileged citizens rationalized nurturing ties with the United States at the very moment when the two nations began negotiating the reinstatement of Haitian sovereignty in 1930. Their efforts, Dr. Verna shows, helped favorable ideas about the United States, once held by a small segment of Haitian society, circulate more widely. In this way, Haitians contributed to and capitalized upon the spread of internationalism in the Americas and the larger world.

Dr. Verna received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University and is currently a professor in the History Department in Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Verna focuses on the culture of foreign relations, specifically concerning Haiti and the United States during the mid-twentieth century.

Apply for the Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba

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Teaching Cuban Culture & Society: A Summer Educator Institute in Cuba
Havana, Cuba | June 23 – July 7, 2018
Program Application
Application Deadline: March 2, 2018

Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University join forces with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies to take K-16 educators to Cuba. This is our fourth year running the Cuban Culture & Society K-16 Educator Institute and we are excited about this year’s itinerary. The institute will approach Cuban society and culture form a multidisciplinary perspective focused on the arts, the geography, and history of the country. Innovative programming and annual summer teacher institutes over the past three years provide the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and studying the region. Taking advantage of Tulane’s relationship with the University of Havana and Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists, the institute equips teachers with multidisciplinary content, curricular resources, and methods of inquiry for developing that approach in their K-16 classrooms. Conducted in English by Professor Carolina Caballero, the institute will explore current trends and issues in Cuban culture and society through readings, films, and lectures. The program includes a series of talks by prominent Cuban intellectuals and local field trips to important political and cultural sights throughout Havana.

This two-week program provides the unique opportunity to work on developing lesson plans while exploring the sights and sounds of a nation and country that remain obscured behind political rhetoric and misinformation. Recent economic changes on the island have provoked a series of social and cultural transformations that have left Cubans and the entire world wondering what could be next for the island and the Revolution. Don’t miss the chance to witness some of these challenges and triumphs firsthand and get the opportunity to bring your experience back to your students in the classroom.

The trip will include a pre-departure orientation and two weeks in Cuba. The institute incorporates visits to local museums and exposes participants to arts organizations, schools, and teachers from the country’s national literacy campaign. Participants will stay within walking distance of the Malecón, the university, and many cultural venues. There will be group excursions to the historic Che Guevara monument, a visit to the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a special visit to the town of Hershey, the town developed by Milton Hershey to begin his chocolate enterprise with the sugar from Cuba’s plantations. There will also be group excursions to the historic cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, Playa Girón, and Viñales, focusing on their role in the development of the economy and culture of the country

The cost will include a shared room and two meals a day, medical insurance, airfare to/from Havana from Tampa, Florida*, airport transportation in Havana to/from residence, OFAC-licensed academic visa, and specialized tours and outings.

*Airfare to/from Tampa, Florida, a one-night hotel stay in Tampa, incidental costs, and extra meals and expenses are not included in the program cost. You are responsible for your own air flight to/from Tampa, FL.

Those interested in applying must be a K-16 educator or librarian. There is no Spanish language requirement for this program. The application deadline is March 2, 2018, at 5:00 PM.

Please note: This program is only open to K-16 educators who are currently teaching, are pre-service teachers or are serving in a school or public library.

Please be advised that this itinerary is subject to change based on availability in Cuba. The itinerary below is the schedule from the 2017 institute.

  • Day 1 – U.S./HAVANA, CUBA
    Depart from Tampa, FL, Upon arrival, enjoy dinner and a welcome reception followed by an informal walk and people watching on the Malecón.
  • Day 2 – HAVANA
    Habana Vieja (Old Havana) Tour with local preservation experts to discuss in depth the history of local landmarks, historical preservation efforts, and future plans. Visit Muraleando Lawton, a community art project in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana. Hear from the founders of this project on how the neighborhood developed to promote skills in the community and support the local economy and meet with local community leaders, students and elderly folks at the community center.
  • Day 3 – HAVANA
    Lecture with Professor Carlos Alzugaray on Cuba Since the Special Period. Visit the elementary school Sergio Luis Ferriol in Habana Vieja. Connect with teachers and administrators about their experiences in the classroom.
  • Day 4 – HAVANA
    Visit the Museo Nacional de la Alfabetización (National Museum of the Literacy Campaign) and connect with members of the literacy brigade, teachers from the literacy campaign.
  • Day 5 – HAVANA
    Visit and explore Ernest Hemingway’s house. Have lunch in the infamous fishing village of Cojimar. In the afternoon, explore art by taking a tour of the Cuban Collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes accompanied by a curator then visit with artists at the Taller de Gráfica.
  • Day 6 – HERSHEY
    Day trip to the Hershey, Cuba and nature park. The site where famous chocolatier Milton Hershey developed his chocolate business by setting up sugar mills in the early 1900’s. Explore the natural side of Cuba in this country town.
  • Day 7 – HAVANA
    Learn about children’s literature and the book publishing business in Cuba by visiting Cuba’s national publisher UNEAC and hear first hand from children’s book authors. We will hear from children’s book author Olga Marta Pérez about the children’s/ youth Literacy Scene in Cuba today.
  • Day 8 – HAVANA/REGLA
    Take the ferry across the bay in Havana to the town of Regla to learn about Afro-Cuban dance and music from musicologist Cari Diez and an Afro-Cuban dance performance group.
    Travel to Trinidad via Santa Clara, a town founded by 175 people on July 15, 1689. It is the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution in 1958. Visit to the Che Mausoleum in Santa Clara. Also visit the historic sugar plantation of Manaca Iznaga before arriving in Trinidad.
  • Day 10 – TRINIDAD
    Explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, founded on December 23, 1514 by Diego Velázquez de Cuellar. Trinidad was a central piece of Cuba’s sugar-based economy. Guided city tour with the city historian. Visit the Trinidad library to learn about the importance of libraries and debate questions of intellectual freedom with the staff.
  • Day 11 – PLAYA GIRON (SITE OF BAY OF PIGS) Ciénega de Zapata, Playa Larga
    Day excursion to the historic site of the Bay of Pigs, one of the landing sites for the 1961 US-backed invasion. Visit the Finca Fiesta Campesina farm, the Playa Girón museum, the Parque Ciénaga de Zapata, the Laguna del Tesoro, and the Taino Indian village. Snorkel in the Bay of Pigs!
  • Day 12 – HAVANA
    Visit the U.S. Embassy and hear first-hand about the state of current relations between the U.S. and Cuba. In the afternoon, we head over to meet up with the famous hip-hop group, Obsesión to hear about their music and experience as hip-hop artists in Cuba.
    Take a day trip to Matanzas, the capital of the Cuban province of Matanzas. Known for its poets, culture, and Afro-Cuban folklore, we will explore the Triunvirato Plantation and the Castillo San Severino where we will hear about the history of slavery in Cuba. The rest of the afternoon we relax and explore the beautiful beaches of Varadero, a popular resort town covering Cuba’s narrow Hicacos Peninsula.
  • Day 14 – HAVANA
    Wrap-up curriculum workshop followed by a free afternoon ending in a celebratory dinner.
  • Day 15 – HAVANA/U.S.
    Morning departure for the U.S.

Explore our past trips through these photos and curricula:

Program Application

For more information, please contact Denise Woltering-Vargas at or call the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at 504-862-3143.