With over 700 islands in the Caribbean, there are a lot of beaches to lie back on and contemplate nothing more than your next rum cocktail. But this is also a region with a lively political mix, shaped by (and shaping) the currents of globalization. Look a little closer and you'll find today's Caribbean to be as interesting, complex and engaging as anywhere on the planet.

Cuba – the Caribbean's new horizon

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Caribbean's biggest island has been responsible for the Caribbean's biggest news story in recent years. The death of Fidel Castro in 2016 was one of those rare era-changing events. The leader had outlasted the Cold War that had made him a global figure, maintained Cuba's revolution and even lasted until the green shoots of rapprochement with the United States were showing. These saw resumption of diplomatic ties and a visit to the island by President Obama, the first by a US president since 1928 – only two years after Castro's birth.

The exact future of Cuba's revolution remains unsettled, but the future of Cuban tourism looks set. A relaxation of the US travel embargo has led to the resumption of direct flights between the two countries, and cruise companies flocking to add the island to their itineraries. Cuba helped invent the whole concept of Caribbean tourism back in the 1940s, and its return to the travel mainstream isn't to be underestimated.

The prospect of a huge new holiday market in the region has caused other Caribbean nations to glance nervously across the sea. The period since the global recession has been a tough one for many countries reliant on tourism. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, visitor arrivals in 2016 were a quarter of what they were a decade previously, and the road back to growth is a tough one.

Debts new and old

Other countries have faced other financial challenges. The rise of East Asia has brought relief for some, with Taiwan and China vying for influence (and UN votes) through regional investments. Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping toured the Caribbean in 2013, China has poured billions into the region, building roads and infrastructure and snapping up local businesses, making it an increasingly important political player.

While China has been splashing the cash, Puerto Rico has been struggling with a huge ongoing financial crisis. The island has more than US$70 billion in debts, the result of a crisis triggered by the island's complicated tax and banking relationship with the mainland USA, and further exacerbated by high unemployment. Puerto Rico's need for a bail-out has added a new urgency to the island's perennial debate over independence versus seeking full statehood within the United States.

Some Caribbean debts go back even further than the recent activities of the banks and mutual fund managers. Slavery continues to be an issue in the Caribbean, and the seeking of reparations is now an official policy of the regional governmental grouping Caricom. The labor of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean once provided the economic spark that helped light Europe's Industrial Revolution, they argue, and these former colonies still suffer from the bad economic conditions they inherited at independence. Caricom has proposed a 10-point action plan to address the issue, ranging from a full apology from European governments, to reparations including debt cancellation and promotion of regional cultural institutions and health and education programs. The former colonial powers have yet to significantly address the call for reparations, but it's an issue that isn't going anywhere.

Moves on marijuana?

Cuban-US relations have put cigars back on the shopping list for many tourists, but it's another type of smoking that's made headlines in the region. In 2015 Jamaica decriminalized the possession of marijuana, more popularly known locally as ganja. Legalization is a trickier affair, as it requires the unpicking of international treaty obligations, but most observers assume it'll be on the cards before too long. In fact, the Ministry of Tourism has already shown its hand through its sponsoring of ganja-growing festivals on the island. Winery-style tasting tours and Bob Marley–branded spliffs are presumably the next step.

It's not just Jamaica, through. The prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines has already anticipated more global moves for decriminalization and tied them to the need for economic diversification by proposing that marijuana should ultimately replace bananas as one of the Caribbean's main exports. His tiny island group is (adjusted for size) by far the biggest marijuana producer in the Caribbean, and legal tax revenues could prove a very welcome financial fillip.

Climate challenges

The Caribbean climate is a highly dynamic one, and it's a region that is particularly susceptible to the problems of global warming. The increased frequency of extreme weather events, not least the stretching out of hurricane season, is proving challenging for many countries. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew was the first hurricane to make landfall in the Caribbean for many years, hitting the southwest of Haiti with its full force, devastating agriculture and causing great loss of life in the one country with the least capacity to stand it. Tiny Dominican is still recuperating from the wrath of 2015's Tropical Storm Erika, which swept away an entire village, Petite Savanne on the southeast coast.

Many islands are now turning to renewable energy. The Dutch Antilles are investing heavily in wind power, as is Puerto Rico. Its Santa Isabel wind farm on the south coast is the Caribbean's largest. Meanwhile, Nevis, St Lucia and Dominica are attempting to take advantage of their volcanic locations to try and develop geothermal energy. The Caribbean has been through many storms – environmental, political and economic – but with luck and planning, its people should continue to weather them and build themselves a more secure future.