TV review: ‘Caribbean with Simon Reeve’ (2015)

The Caribbean is “a place of real extremes”. In this three-part BBC series, presenter Simon Reeve finds the expected paradise beaches but also violent crime, strong communities and amazing stories. This was a very interesting series which drew attention to some vital issues and had some fantastic camerawork. Here are some highlights:

Episode 1:

  • The Dominican Republic looks like paradise but we see another side to it, as Simon goes on training with the police anti-narcotics squad. We see what they’re up against – the guns are so easy for the gangs to use and millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine finds its way out of the country and on to our streets. As Simon watches the police haul of cocaine go up in flames, he reflects that the Caribbean is the “victim” between the supplier countries and the markets. The Dominican Republic is also the world’s worst place to drive, exemplified when guide Carlos pulls up at a drive-thru bar. The drink-drive laws are not enforced and there are consequently a lot of accidents.
  • Haiti has a “grim reputation” and has suffered a lot over the years. We hear some history of the country and then see a voodoo ceremony. Voodoo has a sinister connotation but guide Jean Daniel is actually a voodoo priest and he says that people fear what they don’t know. The ceremony is lively, colourful and welcoming. On to the capital Port-au-Prince, where mounds of rubble and makeshift camps are evidence of the massive earthquake in 2010. Jean Daniel gets emotional as he recounts his experiences. Charity worker Adeline explains her work with Restaveks, children whose parents can’t afford to keep them and then give them away. It’s modern slavery and the key is to educate the public about it.
  • Puerto Rico is a territory of the USA. There are apparently more Puerto Ricans in the USA than in Puerto Rico now, as it’s an expensive place to live but the wages don’t match. Simon goes to the island of Vieques, where the USA tested weapons, while people were living there. The testing finally stopped in 2002. He goes diving in the water just off the coast, which he pronounces quite peaceful – “apart from the MASSIVE BOMB!” The seabed is littered with unexploded devices, which the USA needs to clean up. They claim to be cleaning up the site at the other end of the island, which is said to have more craters than the moon, but we’re not allowed to take a look.

Episode 2:

  • Barbados is where the rich go for paradise beaches and the bluest sea. However, local people are priced out of the coastal areas, except for one man who has been offered $8 million but still won’t sell up. On the steep sides of the volcano on the island of St Vincent, people are secretly farming marijuana in the fertile volcanic soil. They can make more money than farming bananas. There isn’t any organised crime involved and the farmers are relaxed, especially as they are smoking the product of their farms. They don’t mind being filmed. Simon meets the Prime Minister, who is hoping that marijuana will be decriminalised. It would benefit the economy.
  • Venezuela has a Caribbean coastline, although it’s not traditionally thought of as a Caribbean country. It’s one of the biggest oil producers and should be rich, but things are not looking good. In Caracas, Simon visits an abandoned skyscraper which is home to thousands of squatters. It’s not a safe place to live, but the people feel safer than out on the streets in the city. There’s a solid community in the tower and some people even run businesses. On the other hand, fuel is extremely cheap and subsidised by the government. Filling a tank at the petrol station for about a dollar, the cheapness of fuel (at the expense of other important areas) is “extra extra extra bonkers”.
  • A quarter of the bananas consumed in the UK are from Colombia. Simon helps to harvest bananas and hears about the paramilitaries’ violence towards banana farmers in the recent past, and the links to the banana corporations. We follow the bananas to the port, where they are checked for smuggled cocaine. On to the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the indigenous Kogi people live an isolated and gentle existence. There are inevitably some laughs about the height difference between Simon and the tribespeople. “I hate cockerels,” he groans, having had a noisy night’s stay. The Kogi are worried about the changes in nature they’ve observed and say that “Mother Earth is in pain”.

Episode 3:

  • Nicaragua is about to be split by a canal project which will link the Pacific and the Caribbean, an endeavour attempted many times before. It was approved by the government without a public consultation and will have a huge impact on the environment and on traditional ways of life. Simon obtains varying views on the project. Some people claim it will bring wealth and employment, while others think it won’t benefit locals and will tear communities apart. On to the island of Roatan off the Honduran coast, where scientist Steve Box is studying parrotfish. Coral reefs are kept healthy by the presence of these fish. There is a “magical” night-time dive on the world’s second largest barrier reef to extract fish DNA.
  • Honduras has a shocking murder rate. In San Pedro Sula, “the deadliest city on the planet”, Simon goes on patrol with the military police. There are abandoned houses, where gangs have forced people out of their homes. Later, on the scene of an assassination of two off-duty police officers, it’s revealed that over 50 police have been killed by the gangs in 5 years. By nine o’clock in the evening, there have been seven murders that day. A visit to a very scary prison then takes place, with Simon under protection of the bishop in the areas where the guards don’t go. The gangs pretty much run the inside of the prison, which is like a town. Simon is very relieved to get back outside.
  • Our guide in Jamaica, Nick, is actually from Derby in the UK, but has moved back to his parents’ home country. He points out the disappearing beaches which the locals are hopelessly trying to stem with piles of rocks. Climate change has brought an increase in storms which are eroding the coast. Simon investigates the ‘brain drain’ of the educated workforce from Jamaica but on a more positive note there has been a reduction in crime rates. In Kingston he undergoes polygraphy, a technique mainly used on police officers to tackle corruption. They don’t just want 99.9% of the truth, they want 100%. This epic journey then ends, as it began, with a paradise beach. White sand, blue waves and palm trees.

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