A demographic patchwork


“A microcosm of the world” is a phrase easily applied to the demographic landscape of the Caribbean region, such does its diversity and heterogeneity appear everywhere to be the rule. With around 261 million inhabitants in 2008, distributed between numerous islands of the Lesser and Greater Antilles as well as mainland states bordering the Caribbean Sea, the region reveals itself as a digest of the varied character of the world's population. Natality, mortality, fertility, life expectancy provide the key indicators whose evolution is reflected in the make-up of the present-day population and the contrasting situations inherited during the course of the demographic transition, a cycle as yet still to be completed in some countries. It is these differing population histories that together have come to define the very originality of this Caribbean space.

Whilst Europe's own demographic transition was already under way by the end of the 18th century, its Caribbean counterpart would arrive two centuries later, but would take hold much more rapidly than in ‘Old Europe,' with the cycle today completed in several countries. In this context, it is equally important to emphasise related policies put into place in those states: the provision of a mains drinking water supply network, the fight against malaria, the improvement (albeit partial) in living standards.

In an attempt to categorise the overall demographic situation, it is possible to identify three main groupings of countries following a similar evolution.

1. An early transition

From the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba, Barbados, Anguilla, Aruba or the Dutch Antilles, and more generally the Lesser Antilles archipelago, witness the start of their demographic transitions. Greatly influenced by European models encouraged by an immigrant settler presence, birth rates drop whilst mortality increases. Fertility is also dropping with natural increase still high. In turn, mortality rapidly decreases with the impact of improved sanitation, the development of health education, widespread vaccination, the expansion of medical care and the diffusion of antibiotics (circa 1950s).

The onset of urbanisation is also an important factor facilitating the spread of medical progress and access to care, whilst at the same time inciting delays in the age of marriage. Concerted efforts by governments in support of schooling helped in the diffusion of methods of contraception. In parallel with countries that had achieved their demographic transition, such progress above all benefitted the younger generations. Infantile mortality is significantly reduced gradually leading to a drop in the fertility rate – as it was no longer necessary to bring so many children into the world so as to ensure the survival of the family lineage – following on from a logical interim phase of an increase in the number of live births. Today, these countries are very close in their demographic profiles to those of Europe when they are not seeking to base themselves (as in the case of French overseas territories) on their own metropole's evolution. This explains why Martinique and Guadeloupe hold the record for life expectancy within the region, averaging over 77 years.

Across this whole group of territories, characterise as being in “precocious transition,” the rate of natural (excess births over deaths) remains low and female fertility no longer ensures demographic replacement between generations. Barbados with less than 1.65 babies per woman, similarly Montserrat (1.22) or the British or American Virgin Islands (1.89), provide examples of the current situation. Population growth remains low, less than 1% in all these territories, a situation improved in some by high emigration.

Again, within this same group, but by comparison with the wider Caribbean region, one country stands out as a unique case, Cuba. As a state, Cuba is somewhat atypical, with all the usual indicators testifying to a situation which appears exceptional within the wider regional context. With its demographic transition dating from the 1950s, in other words very early by comparison to the rest of the region, but then interrupted during the Castrist revolution and pursuing its course during the 1980s, the country today registers the lowest rate of natural increase in the Caribbean (only 0.5% growth between 2000 and 2005). The mortality rate is relatively low (7.12), and more particularly infantile mortality which is one of the lowest in the region (less than 6 ‰), i.e. lower than the USA (6.3‰). Fertility is also the lowest (1.6 children per woman), if the special case of Montserrat is excluded.1 Life expectancy is one of the highest in the region, certainly not of recent date because in the 1930s, Cuban life expectancy was around 50 years, whilst still only 26 years in the Dominican Republic. Cuba, today, is well into a post-transitional phase, and the first signs of ageing are now clearly in evidence.

The above group of territories emerging from sometimes long and difficult phases within their transitions, today approach the end-point of the cycle, now in tandem with “Old Europe,' in other words facing the inevitable ageing of their populations, this when the majority of other countries within the wider region have barely achieved their full transition, whilst others, fewer in number, are at the final stage.

2. The classic transition

Starting much later (1960s) than the schematic model alluded to previously indicated, the demographic transition for the majority of Caribbean countries appear to follow the classic cycle in the sense that the pace of evolution is less rapid and that each stage reached stays within the norms. Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and lastly Trinidad & Tobago are all within the frame.

At the beginning of their transition, these territories register occasionally high fertility rates (6 to 7 children per female). Today the number of children is situated rather between 2 and 3, nevertheless ensuring generational replacement. Improvements in contraception, access to care and medical advances, are once again driving the transition, but not alone as continuing relations with European societies continue to play their part in transforming family structures, even though the age at which the first procreation takes place remains young, and showing a tendency to come down further during the 1960s. In most countries, women become mothers straight after marriage – the age of marriage also tending to have come down – and with the age of the first procreation between 20 and 24 years. It is a situation particular to the region, where women become young mothers but without having large numbers of children, thereby combining the ‘western' ideal of the small family with powerful traditional cultural factors proper to the region, and more generally Latin America.

The birth rate has slowed down, as has the death rate, and more particularly infant mortality. In 1950, one child in eight died before the age of 1 year, with the infant mortality rate exceeding 100‰, even reaching 150‰ in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, or El Salvador. Today, infant mortality rate is between 15 and 20‰. They still remain high but reflect a greater diversity of circumstances within a country and its social make-up. One thus observes significant disparities between the autochthonal and non-autochthonal populations, between the rural and the urban, the latter milieu during this period having favoured the poorest classes by facilitating their access to medical care. These disparities are sometimes important and more particularly so in vast countries like Venezuela, or again Colombia. Life expectancy at birth has risen whilst mortality rates were decreasing, and studies suggest a gain of around 20 years. Today, life expectancy in the region is above the world average. In this situation of a recorded decline in both birth and death rates, the rate of natural increase of the population has shown a slow and regular decrease.

It should be noted, however, that the future remains uncertain, particularly concerning the number of deaths recorded and the trend in the mortality rate, with HIV/AIDS ravaging certain countries. On average, the most affected countries see a drop of five years in their population's life expectancy. The prevalence2 in some countries remains high and death rates in turn are clearly affected. In countries like the Bahamas where prevalence reaches 3.3% (one of the highest recorded in the Caribbean), that is to say 10 times that of France (1.4%) but identical to Togo for example, mortality rates appear unusually high (more than 9‰) by comparison with others indicators. This is equally the case in Trinidad. The impact of HIV in these countries is undeniable, where populations are already small, having long achieved their transition and now moving towards an ageing demographic profile. The latter situation alone does not explain in itself a sudden jump in the death rate, only an external factor like a pandemic can help contribute to such an increase in mortality. The case is identical to that of Trinidad and Tobago where prevalence reaches 2.6, that is higher than Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Trinidad is the only country in the region to have registered a decrease in population since 2000. Natural increase is on 2.29‰, a rate lower than almost all those found in Caribbean countries. The high mortality rate, accentuated by deaths attributable to HIV explains this statistic to which, however, should be added the impact of an increased ageing of the population. Lastly, high emigration also helps explain this poor performance in respect of demographic growth.

All these countries have today largely completed their demographic transition. Births and deaths have both dropped, as has the rate of natural increase. Generational replacement remains assured because of rates of fertility between 2 and 3‰. The countries still remain young demographically even though signs of ageing are becoming evident. Lastly, the importance and impact of AIDS in certain countries should be underlined.

The heterogeneity of the Caribbean region in terms of population is all too clear, and even if commonalities exist between some countries in the paths followed, others have fallen behind with their demographic transition still being negotiated.

3. A relating transition

It is the poorest countries of the region that find themselves in a delayed demographic transition. For them, the processes involved are still in train. In these countries, access to means of contraception is often limited. Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti are members of this final group, joining it on the basis of very high fertility rates. On average, women give birth to between 6 and 7 children, as in those countries that followed a classic transition, but with the difference that the decline in their fertility remains low, with very great disparities between rural and urban. Access to methods of contraception and to social welfare programmes remains the reserve of urban populations. High fertility rates therefore remain the norm. Mortality follows a similar pattern, even though infant mortality has tended to decline rapidly, from more than 150‰ in the 1950s to between 25-30‰ on average today. However, these rates still remain very high. Bringing improved sanitation, methods of contraception, and the benefits of other public policies to the autochtonal communities living in rural areas in conditions of extreme poverty and exclusion has proved difficult. Life expectancy remains under 70 years.

In these territories with their delayed transition, rates of population growth remained stable until the mid 1980s, for mainly two reasons: firstly because there had been no significant change in fertility, and secondly, the evolution in birth and death rates was identical. Change in this last group remains slow, but Haiti remains a case apart, such is its degraded demographic situation.

Haiti is the poorest country in the region, and even if the transition is now under way, mortality remains high (10.1‰), whilst infant mortality attains levels nearer to the worst in the African continent rather than Latin America (62.3‰). The recent rise in basic food prices has only served to accentuate the risks of a further rise in infant mortality. In fact, life expectancy is the lowest in the region, and below 60 years. The latter is not likely either to improve soon because the country is strongly affected by AIDS, notably amongst young women. Haiti is the worst affected regionally, representing 4% of the population. Indicators for both natality and fertility are at the highest end of the scale, respectively 35.7‰ and 4.8 children per woman. In view of this pattern, population should be strong, but that does not take into account high emigration which reduces the overall figure to a more moderate total.

This somewhat exceptional case study again illustrates the heterogeneity of Caribbean space, a demographic patchwork sometimes complex to comprehend, reflecting a diversity of cultures, social and economic circumstances, resources and people.

Whichever the particular transition route followed, demographically the Caribbean region has encompassed the essential elements of the European-based model. The next major challenges to be faced will be those relating to the general ageing of populations, the management of this expanding cohort, not least that of the social dependency engendered by deep old age, sometimes on a scale much greater than that being confronted in Europe at the present day.


1 On 25 June 1997, Montserrat saw the Southern half of its island destroyed after the eruption of its volcano, Soufriere Hills. The capital, Plymouth, was destroyed with two thirds of its population fleeing the island, which had a total population then of around 12 000 inhabitants of which only 5 000 returned, a major local disruption demographically caused by a natural disaster.

2 In epidemiology, prevalence is a measure of a population's state of health at a given point in time. It is calculated by comparing the total number of cases present at that moment to the total population of the defined area in question.

Author: Frédérique Turbout
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith