The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea combined are a western bulge of the Atlantic Ocean. The fact that this ocean extension is island-studded and partially separates two continents has contributed to its past and present significance. The area of the combined seas is large, with a total water expanse of roughly 1.35 million square miles. The addition of 92,000 square miles of islands produces for the region a total area nearly half that of the conterminous United States. From Corpus Christi, Texas, to Barbados the distance is over 2,600 miles, whereas about 1,600 miles separate Colombia, at the southern margin of the Gulf of Darien, from Alabama (see Map 2). Location, distance, and area are unvarying geographic realities that affect human activities in a number of ways.
The Gulf/Caribbean area consists of two semienclosed seas joined by the Yucatan Channel. The Straits of Florida provide the only open-sea connection for the Gulf of Mexico. Often included in regional treatments are the Bahama Archipelago and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which lie in the Atlantic along the northeast flank. East of Cuba, a curving chain of islands picket the northern and eastern margins of the Caribbean.
Although not greatly different in size, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are quite different in geopolitical terms. Only the United States, Mexico, and Cuba--militarily the three strongest countries of the region-face the Gulf of Mexico. Frontage on the Caribbean, on the other hand, is shared by more political entities than any other arm of the sea in the world.
Roughly a score of passages connect the Atlantic and the Caribbean, besides the Yucatan link with the gulf. The Panama Canal provides a water passage between the Pacific and the Caribbean. Unlike the gulf, the Caribbean also is important as an ocean route between distant places.
The main island chain is known as the Antilles, a term that predates discovery. It appeared originally on fourteenth-century European maps to designate unseen islands thought to lie west of Portugal. Common usage distinguishes between the Greater Antilles--Cuba, Jamaica, Hispañola, and Puerto Rico--and the Lesser Antilles--the string of small islands extending toward South America. Only the Netherlands Antilles use the term officially, although the French holdings are termed the French Antilles in speech and writing and their inhabitants are known as Antilleans. The strait between Dominica and Guadeloupe divides the Lesser Antilles into the Leeward Islands on the north and the Windward Islands on the south. Despite the fact that climatically there is little sense to the usage as the Northeast Trade Winds affect both groups, the appellation endures. For reasons no more clear, Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, and the Venezuelan islands of Margarita and Tortuga are not regarded as part of the Antilles despite similarities in size and location.
Other islands, cays (keys), and banks interrupt the water surface of the Gulf/Caribbean. In particular, groups of islands fringe both main coasts of Cuba and lie off Central America from Yucatan to Colombia. The Cayman island group west of Jamaica is the largest of the open-sea islands. A cluster of land fragments east of Nicaragua includes Isla de Providencia (Old Providence Island) and Isla San Andrés (St. Andrews Island). Revival by the Sandinista government of a once-settled dispute with Colombia over ownership of these islands has added another issue to the geopolitics of the western Caribbean.