Caribbean's dangerous drift

From Jamaica to Trinidad, the Caribbean is teeming with political, economic, and social ferment. While the United States is preoccupied with events in the Middle East, serious trouble is brewing in its own backyard -- an area once thought to be a US sea. The region has not been under the thumb of Washington since the emergence of Fidel Castro in Cuba, if indeed it ever was a private US preserve. But events of recent weeks suggest how far the Caribbean is drifting away from allegiances to the US.

Jamaica, the first of the one-time British islands to become independent in the early 1960s, is experiencing economic growing pains. Food riots, consumer shortages, and a weak bauxite market, couple with escalating fuel prices, have brought the lovely tourist island to its knees. Searching for solutions, the government of left-leaning Prime Minister Michael Manley has tries to get Soviet , Cuban, Libyan, and other non-Western and nontraditional support with only limited success. And an International Monetary fund bailout, underway for a year, has been sidetracked because, in IMF eyes, Jamaica is overspending.

Further to the south and east, Grenada is flirting with Cuba and the Soviet Union; St. Lucia and St. Vincent are entertaining Soviet trade missions; new murders rock the US Virgin Islands; terrorism escalates on Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth now debating its future status; the islands of Dominica and the Dominican Republic slowly recover from devastating hurricanes of last August and September. The list is long.

Against all this, Washington is having a hard time sorting out its own options. President Carter says the US "would not want to threaten military force" in the region because he sees no outside danger that would require US actions as in the Gulf area. His spokesmen say these words are aimed at allaying fears of the Caribbean countries about US military intervention in their affairs -- a frequent US approach in the past. But to islanders they serve to suggest the failure of Washington to be concerned with their livelihood. This week the State Department indicated it would concentrate next year's aid to Latin America in the Caribbean and Central America, which is also in social and political turmoil. It is to be hoped this is a harbinger of more attention to the region.

The situation is urgent. Washington must pause and take a look at its struggling neighbors. It has an obvious interest in helping eradicate the squalor and misery that now engulf a good two-thirds of the area's population. The Dutch, it was disclosed recently, spend proportionately more of their national income in the Caribbean than the US. This may be self-interest, given Holland's island possessions. But the US, too, has a self-interest, not only because it is associated with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but because the Caribbean is on its southern doorstep -- and communist influences are at work.

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