Hidden unrest in US backyard; Cuba's revolutionary legacy

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

The resulting turbulence, which is causing deep concern in Washington, calls out for a coordinated US strategy to deal with the area as a whole in the 1980s. The US clearly finds the problems of the individual islands almost too miniscule to deal with. A coherent policy for the whole area rather than a bit-by-bit approach is needed.

The islands also cannot be separated from the periphery surrounding them -- the US mainland to the north, oil-rich Mexico to the northwest, troubled Central America, on the west, and the fabled Tierra Firme coast of mainland Colombia, Venezuela, and the Guianas on the south.

What happens on one island or on Middle America, as in the case of newly radicalized Grenada and strife-ridden El Salvador, affects not only immediate neighbors but also the whole region. A spinoff from the new revolutionary government of Grenada is making waves on nearby St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Virtual civil war in El Salvador has already begun to affect Guatemala, Honduras , and even Panama.

It is not overlooked in Caribbean circles that Grenadan Prime Minister Maurice Bishop recently paid a visit to Nicaragua, where the London-trained lawyer spent considerable time talking with the Sandinista leaders there who, like Mr. Bishop, have ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Actually the Caribbean Basin, since colonial times, has had a unity and cohesiveness. In the era of the Conquistadores and the early Spanish colonizers , when the Caribbean became a New World Mediterrean for the Spanish empire, the waters and the lands bathed by those waters have represented a geographic, and sometimes political, whole.

In the 17th century, when nations were struggling for mastery of the seas, the Caribbean was a battleground for Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and others -- a struggle that went to the very end of the 18th century.

In the 19th century, a slave rebellion on Haiti ushered in a period of gradual collapse of European hegemony in the area -- a collapse that was sealed with the Spanish-American war and the building of the Panama Canal. Those events turned the Caribbean into a US lake in the 20th century.

But the US no longer controls the area -- if indeed it ever did. Fidel Castro proved this in the 1960s and events since then have confirmed it.

The long strugggle of the Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua to unseat the US-supported Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua is another case in point. So are the guerrilla-terrorist struggles in Guatemala and El Salvador. The independence of Mexico's present government, President Carter's numerous gaffes in relations with Mexico, and the new Panama Canal treaties also are diminishing US influence in the region.

The Carter administration came to office promising a new era in relations with the Caribbean -- "a mature, healthy relationship . . . founded on respect," as Terence Todman, then the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, put it in 1977. President Carter announced that the US would pay attention to the Caribbean, its "third border," as part of his own good neighbor policy to the other US neighbors -- Canada and Mexico.

But now the rhetoric has proven to be just that, and little more. Three years later, the US position in the Caribbean is at an all-time low. Three years of high-flown phrases, high- ranking missions, and even some increased economic assistance have failed to bring about that "mature, healthy relationship" Mr. Todman hoped for.

Cuba, on the other hand, has reaped the benefits of this dwindling US influence. Fidel Castro's prestige is high. In fact, some observers say it is higher today than at any other time since he toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Havana has become the Mecca for many Caribbean leaders, and Dr. Castro is kingpin of not only the nonaligned nations' organization, whose members he hosted last September, but also the Caribbean community.

President Carter's own confusing statements on the US role in the Caribbean are widely seen as contributing to the problem. In his State of the Union address in January, the President spoke of Washington's readiness to defend the Caribbean against foreign ideology. But in a subsequent meeting with editors, he downplayed that approach and suggested the region was not all that important to the US -- a statement that has admittedly been taken far out of context, but nevertheless was taken as a signal to the Caribbean peoples that Washington simply has no concrete policy, nor approach, to their problems, their needs, and their islands.

Yet the necessity of such a comprehensive policy has been made plain by Caribbean specialists -- and was enunciated by State Department troubleshooter Philip J. Habib last August following a study trip to the area.

Subsequently, the administration engaged in what a State Department official dealing with the Caribbean admitted was a "silly" flap with Cuba over the presence of Soviet combat troops. The troops actually had been there for years -- at least 17. But the White House in late August treated their presence as something new. Eventually, the White House shelved the issue, but not before setting up a special task force headquarters in Key West to deal with the situation and ordering maneuvers at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For its part, Cuba is still trying to find its way under Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader is easily the most charismatic figure not only in the Caribbean, but throughout Latin America. He has demonstrated his staying power -- 21 years in office by dint of both popularity and brute force -- but he has largely failed to solve Cuba's economic problems, especially its dependence on sugar exports. Hence his island nation relies heavily on the Soviet Union. Some estimates put the aid at almost $1 billion yearly in the form of outright grants , military assistance, credits, and subsidies.

While an increasing number of Caribbean leaders make pilgrimages to Cuba, the majority are aware of Cuba's economic troubles. Admiring the island's improved educational opportunities, its extensive health services, and its advances in housing, they also note the economic problem of a one-crop economy and recognize that this is often their own dilemma.

Grenada, for example, is heavily dependent on spices, particularly nutmeg; other islands, like St. Lucia, have a sugar-oriented economy. Jamaica relies on bauxite. But many of the islands also depend on tourism, a somewhat artificial economic prop that is also a fickle economic base.

Another basic economic problem is that the islands, with the exception of Cuba and perhaps the Dominican Republic and Haiti, are small and most simply do not have enough size or population to support a thriving economy.

The islands have tried various formulas to overcome this difficulty, including loose federations. But these have collapsed under the weight of island nationalisms. And year by year island after island has insisted on total independence and gone its own often uneconomic way.

A notable exception to the trend has been the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It, too, will soon look at the issue of its future course in a referendum, perhaps in 1981, aimed at deciding whether it becomes a US state, or takes the road to independence, or remains a commonwealth permanently linked to the US.

All across the Caribbean it is a time of uncertainty and flux -- and the 1980 s will reverberate with this change.

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