British Association for American Studies


Keeping Disaster at Bay: Securing the Climate Threat in “America’s Mediterranean”

The American Flag is proudly displayed on a soldier’s uniform aboard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter helping to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Oct. 11, 2017. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has partnered with multiple agencies including the Department of Defense to help provide relief after Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt Christopher Merian)

The contours of what we refer to as the Caribbean have been indelibly shaped by US empire: fault-lines inscribed in the landscape, as in the Panama Canal; in more classically colonial articulations as US commonwealths; a reach extended through bases, bananas and business. Adopting the analytical lens of ‘securityscape’, I explore 21st century US empire in relation to the construction of a Caribbean climate threat. Taking inspiration from Arjun Appadurai’s notion of ‘scapes’, the suffix ‘scape’ accounts for the multi-perspectival and historically contingent global flows of security: security is neither a fixed nor fundamentally good relation, rather encompassing a shifting constellation of peoples, institutions, and ideas which define, perceive, and govern threat.[1] The relations of coloniality and climate change in the Caribbean are not only embedded in past and present extractions and racist dispossessions, but also in the assumptions guiding the management of climate change. Through the prism of environmental disaster, I examine spaces of empire where the policing of climate mobility sustains circulations of consumption in the sites of racialised exclusion by installing the US border across the sea, where disaster is naturalised.

Puerto Rican historian Antonio Gaztambide-Géigel has argued that the use of ‘the Caribbean’ as a reference to a geographical region is an invention of the 20th Century, fundamentally informed by empire and US impositions of order. Shifting from signifying the sea to an “imprecise geography” of islands and coastal edges, this ‘Caribbean’ resulted from “the transition from European to United States hegemony”.[2] In US international imaginaries, the place of Latin America—with the Caribbean as a sideshow of sorts—has been ‘America’s backyard’. Articulated by the Monroe Doctrine, US hemispheric hegemony was set against (European) empire: self-identifying as the protector, not pillager, of the Americas. The US-Spanish-Cuban-Filipino War beginning in 1898 shifted the settler colony into expeditionary rule and rendered the Caribbean legible to US enforcement. The fractured histories and transnational flows of racial capitalism—from the erasing of indigenous genocide, the shipping of enslaved peoples by competing colonial powers, and wringing resources out of lands—were distilled to the paradisal notion of the “American Mediterranean”.[3]

The staying power of the anti-imperialist veneer, and the dissociation of the metropole population, was laid bare in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria, which tore through Puerto Rico in 2017. The gaping divide between the dismal federal disaster response and the lack of national attention placed on the island as compared with hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida in the same year, also speaks to the hierarchies of perceived belonging in US citizenship, as a poll found that 46% of Americans did not know Puerto Ricans are American citizens. The images of President Donald Trump chucking paper towels at hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico was an absurd show of the administration’s failure and the president’s callous disregard for the island: arriving nearly two weeks after Maria devastated the ‘commonwealth’ in desperate need of aid, armed with paper to mop up a kitchen spill.

A ‘natural disaster’ is typically defined by the sudden moment of impact, by the full destructive force of nature beyond human control. But how ‘natural’ is the experience of disaster? This question speaks not only to the debate about Earth’s current geological age, also known as the Anthropocene—grappling with humanity’s influence on the climate and environment, thus can anything ever be ‘natural’—but also to the intertwined question of the power relations in play before, during, and after ‘disaster’. Holding nearly half of the world’s Small Island Developing States, and in such proximity to the US, the Caribbean figures prominently in climate threat scenarios. The supposed lack of resilience in the face of climate threats frames the problem as one of expertise, thus demanding a technical response as the fix. However, it is more than a Russian roulette of geographical fate that renders climate change so devastating to spaces such as the Caribbean. Relations of empire fundamentally shape how spaces of climate insecurity are conceived and protected, spaces considered both as threatened and as threatening.[4]

I propose the notion of the securityscape, as one lens through which to look at discourses around climate threat in the Caribbean. That is, the fluid imaginaries of security—defence, safety, protection, order—which justify US engagement and expansion. The power of US security sustains a multi-million-dollar defence budget and combatant commands that span the entire planet; the current administration’s US Space Command was a source of ridicule, but this truly is the final frontier in an amorphous securityscape. In this context, the US securityscape of the Caribbean climate threat depicts the dangers of vulnerability and fragility, where a lack of climate resilience could translate into mass migration movements.

Climate change is increasingly referred to as a ‘threat multiplier’, a phrase which rose to prominence in the early 2000s and is now part of the general parlance of climate governance. The concept is described by the Department of Defense in the 2014 Adaptation Roadmap: climate change “has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism”. While radical environmental change certainly entails multiple, complex entanglements, what exactly is mobilised in this securityscape of the multiplier? As journalist Todd Miller succinctly put it, the language of threat multiplier makes clear that “while the drought or the storm itself may be a threat, the even larger threat are the people displaced, impacted and on the move because of it”. This rings true in the Caribbean, conceived not only as the “third frontier” of American expansion, but also as the third border, a tidal backdoor alongside the land borders to the North and South.[5]

The securityscape of a Caribbean climate migrant crisis evokes a porous, fluid boundary that cannot be contained with a fence or wall. The portrait of the climate migrant draws upon pre-existing caricatures of a racialised migrant threat, as in the case of Haitian asylum seekers initially dismissed as ‘economic migrants’ who across the 1980s and into the 1990s were subject to the Reaganite practice of interdiction and the expanding detention regime of the Bush and Clinton administrations. Criminalised as illegal entrants after risking their life on the Caribbean Sea, this is a tragedy all too recognisable at the borders of Fortress Europe as well. Imaginaries of migration crises as national security crises fuels demands for fortification. Across an archipelago of outposts, ‘safe havens’ and disaster response, a site of exclusion keeps this ‘threat’ at arm’s length in the quintessential Caribbean space of US empire, Guantanamo Bay. A remnant of the 1898 war, originally claimed as a coaling station for naval operations, the base has a long and violent history as a site of detaining, ‘processing’ and deterring sea bound migrants.

While associated with some of the most egregious brutalities of the War on Terror, the function of this site of racialised exclusion and indefinite detention was established in the policing and criminalising of migrants on the Caribbean Sea. Security measures taken in fear of an ‘undocumented’ mass at the border discount the difficulties of documentation, while also whitewashing US culpability in conditions of instability: in the Haitian case this has spanned from the birth of the nation in the slave rebellion that ended French rule in 1804, as the US refused to recognise this as the second successful American revolution, a refusal that has lasted through interventions and interferences to the present picture of Haiti as the quintessential failed state. These dynamics continue in the climate response; while the US military notes the destabilising impacts of the threat multiplier, this securityscape is under the enormous carbon bootprint of the United States’ global military force.

The centrality of Guantanamo Bay was outlined by the commander of Southern Command, which oversees US operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean, in the 2018 posture statement to Congress. There, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd stressed that “the Naval Station is pivotal during mass migration events, counter drug and search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster-relief operations in the Caribbean”. Cultural studies scholar Diana Murtaugh Coleman noted the discursive grounding of the military base in non-combatant roles, particularly in response to natural disasters, in relation to a contract awarded in 2018 to a Californian construction company. RQ Construction received a twenty-three million dollar contract to build a “Contingency Mass Migration Complex” at Guantanamo, capable of holding 30,000 migrants.[6] The preparation for this contingency is practiced every year in a Southern Command-led, multi-agency “mass migration contingency plan”, Operation Integrated Advance. The exercise is again grounded in humanitarian logics, designed to simulate a mass migration crisis and test disaster response, as part of Vigilant Sentry, a wider Department of Homeland Security operation targeting illegal immigration. The imagined Caribbean climate crisis as a crisis of unregulated migration projects a defensive humanitarianism: where migrants are both potential victims-to-be-saved and illegals-to-be-detained, thus order is installed by keeping the disaster (displaced) at bay.

Uneven mobilities characterise the contrasting images of the Greater Caribbean as the paradise on a postcard and the disaster zone on a newsreel, both speaking to the coloniality of climate change. Alongside the extractions that have powered industrial revolutions—firstly with labour, rum, sugar, and coffee, then again through mining and refining—the strategic ports and bases across the sea have furthered US military power and influence under the auspices of the preservation of paradise.[7] The Caribbean is sold as a site of excess, an offshoring of pleasure, the more visible being lavish cruise liners cutting through clear blue water, white sandy beaches, and private hideaways, alongside the less palatable everyday exploitations of sex tourism and tax-havens. These circulations of consumption are facilitated through the policing of an expansive US borderlands. The notion of climate change as a threat multiplier naturalises the devastation of disasters across developmental divides.

This naturalisation informed the US response in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a disaster that was certainly not natural. Following the devastating impact in Puerto Rico, power was not fully restored across the island until eleven months later, provoking a multi-layered health crisis: left without power, medications and equipment were useless; people were forced to drink contaminated water from ‘Superfund sites’ containing hazardous waste, pollution compounded by corporate negligence; and the abandonment in conditions of devastation triggered a mental health emergency and suicide crisis. In the words of Puerto Rican anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, “vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition”.

[1] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’ in Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 7 (1990) pp.295-310

[2] Antonio Gaztambide-Géigel, ‘The Invention of the Caribbean in the 20th Century: The Definitions of the Caribbean as a Historical and Methodological Problem’ in Social and Economic Studies Vol. 53 No. 3 (2004) pp.127-157

[3] Lester D. Langley, Struggle for the American Mediterranean: United States-European Rivalry in the Gulf-Caribbean, 1776 – 1904 (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1976); Carrie Gibson, Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (New York: Grove Press, 2014)

[4] Trump’s racialized characterisation of Puerto Ricans as wanting everything done for them is a shockingly blunt exposition of a colonial mindset, but in many ways, it echoes mainstream development discourse. The ‘security-development’ nexus not only situates underdevelopment as a problem of the Global South, but this chronic lack is then said to pose a threat to international stability, absolving colonial pasts and international economic hierarchies. See eg. Mark Duffield, ‘The Development-Security Nexus in Historical Perspective: Governing the World of Peoples’ in Challenging the Aid Paradigm (ed.) Sörenson (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010)

[5] See, ; Jamaican scholar and former Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, Norman Girvan’s keynote address, ‘Constructing the Greater Caribbean’ Keynote address delivered at SALISES Regional Integration Conference (7th October 2013) < https://www.alainet.org/images/Constructing-the-Greater-Caribbean.pdf>; also Todd Miller, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World (London: Verso, 2019) especially Chapter 6 ‘The Caribbean Frontier’. While the notion predates the 21st century, the ‘Third Border Initiative’ launched in 2001 by the George W. Bush administration embedded the region in the Homeland security-scape.

[6] Diana Murtaugh Coleman, ‘El Sur También Existe: Imagining futures’ in Cultural Dynamics Vol. 31 No. 4 (2019) pp.365-374

[7] Mimi Sheller, ‘Caribbean Futures in the Offshore Anthropocene: Debt, Disaster, and Duration’ in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space Vol 36 No. 6 (2018) pp.971-986



About the Author

Sarah Earnshaw is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. She is developing her new project, ÔDisaster Temporalities: Race, Resilience, and Return in US Temporary Protection and Caribbean Climate MobilitiesÕ as a tandem fellow in the History of Forced Migration and Environment across the German Historical Institute and Zolberg Institute. Embracing an environmental humanities perspective alongside her work in political theory and the history of International Relations, her research interests revolve around the entanglements of security and liberty, humanitarianism, and questions of empire in US foreign relations. Her doctoral research, ÔÒFreedom Will Be DefendedÓ: The Human Rights Regime of Truth and Standards of Sovereignty in US SecurityÕ won the Bavarian American AcademyÕs Dissertation Prize 2020.

Categories List: