More than 35,000,000 people inhabit the West Indies. Most of them are concentrated in the countries of the Greater Antilles—Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Densities are extremely high on many of the islands. Barbados, for example, had a density in 1991 of 1,557 persons per square mile (601 per km2).

Racially, the West Indians are highly mixed. Most are dark-skinned people, mainly blacks descended from African slaves brought to the islands centuries ago as plantation workers by European colonists. There are also many mulattoes (of mixed black and white descent) and large numbers of whites of European descent, mainly Spanish but also English, French, and Dutch. In addition, there are people of Indian, East Indian, and Chinese origin. Virtually all the groups are unevenly spread among the islands. The population of Barbados, for example, is primarily black; of the Dominican Republic, chiefly mulatto; and of Cuba, largely white. Little remains of the original Indian population, which once numbered in the millions. Through slavery and disease the Arawaks were wiped out soon after the discovery of the islands. Only a few of the Caribs survive.

In culture the islands are a patchwork of languages, religions, and institutions that are largely European—a legacy of long colonial rule. African influences and overtones are also strong on many of the islands, as evidenced by colorful costumes, dances, and music. East Indian and other Asian influences are significant on a few of the islands.

Spanish and English are the languages spoken by most of the West Indians. French, Dutch, numerous dialects, and some mixed tongues, such as Creole and Papiamento, are also used. Roman Catholicism, centered mainly in the Spanish-speaking areas, is the predominant religion. There are significant numbers of Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, and many followers of cults that trace their origins to Africa.

Primary education is free throughout the West Indies, but is generally compulsory only in the economically developed islands. There are several universities and other institutions of higher learning.