Ports and Seaways (2006-2010)




From the beginning of colonization there were ports that were virtual entry points to the unknown. For nearly two centuries, these ports would be fortified and capable of protecting people, ships, and goods, as much from the native populations as from the buccaneers and other privateers belonging to rival powers. Though these port installations played an essential role, they did not constitute the only means of profitably exploiting the Spanish empire. The new colonizers were in search of precious stones but they were also devoted to their farming. They looked to the land itself; for them, the sea was no more than an umbilical cord that tied them to Castile.

Despite the vicissitudes of history (change of colonial power) and of nature (catastrophes wreaked by earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions), the areas chosen for settlement at the beginning of the 16th century would hardly change thereafter, any transformations primarily affecting the port hierarchy. Some since the very beginning have maintained their primacy (Cartagena, San Juan, Veracruz, Havana), others, like Porto Bello, have slipped into a slow somnolence, yet others, like Saint-Pierre, actually disappearing. Many ports became exporters of raw material: the banana ports of Middle America, bauxite ports of Jamaica, or the hydrocarbons of Maracaibo. Today the ports of the Caribbean must strive to find their place within the global system of ports. They have to demonstrate certainty of operation (shelter and protection against cyclonic storms), the ability to take ships of ever increasing tonnage and displacement, and to be equipped to ensure maximum efficiency in trans-shipment. It is those sites capable of receiving the biggest container ships, and to turn them around in the shortest time at the lowest cost, that prevail and attract the ships chartered by the ‘mega-carriers'. The main distribution ‘hubs' of the Caribbean are located at the entrances to the basin. Foremost amongst these is not Miami, but San Juan de Puerto Rico, a genuine maritime point of entry and privileged site, in proximity to a deep sea passage between the islands, it facilitates links between the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Kingston is on a par with Miami, a situation likely to change following the modern port developments at Freeport in the Bahamas. This latter benefits from its closeness to the main oceanic sea-lanes, its density of close links with a major centre like the northeast seaboard of the United States. The other big ports are those which, lying near the outlet of the Panama Canal, can for the present still provide a junction between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and which also have seen the development of free port zones offering sites for a diverse range of manufacturing and services. Colón remains a prime example of this role.

In contrast, the port sites of the Lesser Antilles appear too eccentrically situated, devoid of any real hinterland to play an important role; they all present a marked trade imbalance between imports/exports, in favour of raw materials. However, at another level the competition between them remains fierce.



Author: Monique Bégot