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Hidden unrest in US backyard; Cuba's revolutionary legacy

By James Nelson GoodsellLatin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 1980

Kingston, Jamaica

There is a rumbling in paradise and the United States is feeling the shock waves. Twenty years after Fidel Castro's revolutionary legions took power in Cuba and spotlighted the Caribbean, the area is teeming with turmoil as sweeping, sometimes violent political and social change is felt throughout the whole Caribbean Basin.

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Not since the era of the Mexican Revolution early in this century has there been so much ferment on the US southern flank.

The spectre of new Cubas has come to haunt Washington as it sees its long hegemony in the Caribbean eroding. But the Carter administration has yet to evolve a coordinated strategy for a region that has long been the United States' "third border."

Washington, however, has been focusing a great deal of attention on the area since last July, when Marxist- leaning Sandinista guerrillas toppled the 43 -year-old Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua. Not only does Nicaragua concern the policy planners but nearly El Salvador, coming apart at the seams in what appears the opening guns of a civil war, also gives Washington a case of shivers. Equally troublesome are events on the island of Grenada, where the first coup in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean last year brought a pro-Cuba, Marxist government to power. The neighboring islands of Dominica and St. Lucia subsequently ousted conservative governments in favor of leftist, nationalist regimes.

Washington's concern about these individual islands and nations is multiplied hugely by the region's overall strategic importance as well as by concern about the intentions of both the Soviet Union and Cuba in the area. In addition, the Caribbean is seen as a crucial navigational crossroads for tankers and other traffic using the Panama Canal as well as being the site of several huge oil refineries that supply petroleum to the US East Coast.

But in the Washington view, the strategic role of the Caribbean Basin for the US is threatened most seriously by the region's own growing instability. The Caribbean is clearly not simply the sunny paradise that the travel brochures proclaim.

Underlying the present turmoil are a debilitating economic backwardness and a deep social malaise that centuries of colonial rule failed to ease. Independence has only aggravated the problems.

The turmoil is evident everywhere. Poverty stalks most of the islands and unemployment is rampant. Moreover, for the past seven years or so, the Caribbean as a region has been as hard hit as any area by the continual and rapid rise in oil prices. Countries like Jamaica, which had sizable reserves a decade ago, found them exhausted in paying for their energy supplies.

But it is more than economic troubles that afflict the region. Class struggles, often based at least in part on the color and shading of the skin, are much keener today than ever before. Sometimes this leads to an ugliness that alters the image of the placid, peaceful, and gentle society of the tourist brochures.

Ideology is also a factor, as many Caribbean peoples turn toward uncertain socialist solutions for their islands.

In some measure, all this represents a stirring of newly independent peoples for something better than they have had in the past. It also represents a determined effort to achieve power by a variety of ideological, social, and cultural groups. Perhaps most of all, the stirring represents a basic uncertainty on the part of the islanders on just how they want to order their societies and on where they want their nations to go.

Taken together, the bottom line is that the Caribbean islands are in revolt against the past -- and to some extent, against the present.