Keeping Castroism at bay in the Caribbean

Most of the West's diplomatic attention focuses on such trouble spots as Southwest Asia and the Middle East. But ferment and change are brewing in another part of the world -- the Caribbean -- which could one day pose severe challenges if not attended to. There are some signs of an awakening in Washington, London, and other capitals to the dangers. The question is whether the heightened interest in the region will be backed up by sufficient and sustained Western economic and other resources to bring about needed progress and steam spreading Cuban influence in the area.

It may stretch the imagination to think of the sun-soaked islands of the Caribbean Basin as ripe for revolution. That is an exaggeration, perhaps. But, as a special report in yesterday's Monitor bore out, turbulence is mounting in the region from Cuba and Jamaica in the west, through Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, and as far south as Trinidad. Jamaica, wrestling with economic problems, is in a precarious condition. The tiny republic of Grenada, after a left-wing coup last year, is building up strong ties with Cuba. St. Lucia and Dominica, too, have swung leftward. St. Vincent and the Grenadines may provide another opportunity for Fidel Castro's attentions.

And while the Caribbean islands form a kind of geographic unit in themselves, they cannot be separated in strategic terms from the whole peripheral region, including Mexico, Central America, and the northern tier of countries in South America. These areas, too, have security and economic implications for the United States. In the past there has been a reluctance to give priority to a broad, cohesive approach to lands south of the border. But the rising importance of Latin American oil and other resources, and the political turmoil in Central America as well as the Caribbean area, today painfully show up the short-sightedness of past neglect.

This is not to say that the US ought to enunciate some dramatic new "doctrine" akin to that improvised (and not too successfully) for the Gulf area. Or plunge into the Caribbean region with an overweening military or other presence. But it should be vigorously pursuing policies of economic and other aid, differentiated by country, which address the economic backwardness and social malaise underlying the growing turmoil. Castroism has an appeal primarily for countries that see no other way out of their poverty. To the extent that the US and other can effectively respond to this problem, they will lessen Cuba's potential for adventurism. The menace, in other words, is not Cuba but destitution.

Some steps have been taken. The US has upgraded the quality of its ambassadors in the region generally, increased development aid, and is planning to expand the Peace Corps program and Voice of America broadcasts. Efforts are being made to encourage voluntary agencies, labor unions, and other organizations to play a more visible role in the Caribbean. Contributions to the so-called Caribbean Development Facility, a unit set up in the World Bank, as well as other multilateral funds earmarked for the Caribbean are steadily rising. The European Community is also playing a positive aid role, as are such countries as Britain and Canada. Venezuela, too, is waking up to the need.

Few think that these efforts are sufficient, however. The problem in the US will be to sustain a program of economic assistance over the long term, and this will require educating the American people to the urgency of such an effort, even in times of economic belt- tightening. The failure of Congress to appropriate $75 million for hard-pressed Nicaragua, for instance, demonstrates the political myopia that often has to be overcome. President Carter has focused some attention on this area of the world, but his statements -- and actions -- have often seemed inconsistent. In the wake of the diplomatic fiasco over the Soviet brigade needs to be given to articulating, if not a "doctrine," at least a coherent US policy for the Caribbean region.

In short, after many years of diplomatic inattention, the Caribbean can no longer be left to the swarms of sun-seeking tourists. Even they may disappear if the United States and other industrialized nations fail to assume their responsibilities in the region, thereby opening the way to more turmoil -- and its exploitation by other political forces.

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