Kingston, Jamaica — Suddenly the Caribbean is taking on a different political coloration -- and Washington is breathing a bit easier. After three years of increasing US agonizing about growing Cuban adventurism and influence throughout the 3-million-square-mile Caribbean basin at the expense of US influence, the tide shows signs of changing.
Caribbean voters, in a series of elections culminating in last week's Jamaican parliamentary vote, have put governments friendly with Washington into power in most of the English-speaking Caribbean.
The Jamaican contest, held Oct. 30 in the charged atmosphere of mounting political violence and economic collapse, was easily the most significant as Prime Minister Michael Manley, avowed friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro and advocate of third-world togetherness, went down to a crushing defeat. The opposition Jamaica Labour Party led by Edward Seaga captured 52 of the 60 seats.
It was a stunning personal loss for the charismatic Mr. Manley.
But it was an equally stunning blow to Cuba, which had established a strong diplomatic, economic, and cultural presence in Jamaica. Cuba further saw its neighbor island as a key element in its political strategy of radicalizing the Caribbean islands and creating a loose Cuban hegemony in the area.
It will be long debated whether the Manley ouster, and his replacement by the moderate Mr. Seaga, was due to rejection of Mr. Manley's Cuba connection or to concern over Jamaica's staggering economic problems and the island's mounting political violence.
All of these probably contributed to the Manley loss. And it would be wrong to read too much into the Cuban connection as a factor in the lopsided Seaga victory.
Still, incoming Prime Minister Seaga, at his swearing- in ceremony Nov. 1, said flatly his party's win was "a hard blow for communist interests in the Caribbean."
The Jamaican electorate, he went on, "said 'no' on the question of support for Marxism. . . . They spoke with a loud voice against communism and Marxism."
Flushed with his massive mandate, which amounted to 60 percent of the votes, Seaga said his government would be "middle of the road." He added that the extremes -- left and right -- would put Jamaica in the gutter.
There could be no mistaking that message -- and if there was any misunderstanding, Seaga cleared it up by announcing he had requested Castro to remove Cuban Ambassador Ulises Estrada, who many Jamaicans felt had used his diplomatic office to interfere in Jamaican affairs.
Radio Moscow, meanwhile, took note of the Jamaica developments, saying that in the Manley defeat the Soviet Union had "lost a valuable ally."
Seaga, commenting on the Radio Moscow report, said that the socialist bloc was "tipping its hand to its Caribbean designs."
There is a feeling here that Jamaica has "turned the corner," as a Western diplomat said.
As such, it is suggested that Jamaica has joined Antigua, Dominica, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent in rejecting leftist paths. All five English-speaking islands have recently either brought moderates into their government houses or confirmed those already there against strong bids by pro-Cuba leftists.
Moreover, the larger island countries of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago remain extremely wary of Cuban activities.
It would, however, be a mistake to suggest that Cuba's Caribbean efforts have been entirely frustrated by these recent elections, or that Cuba will necessarily accept the defeats without a whimper.
Moreover, it should not be overlooked that Grenada under Prime Minister Maurice Bishop continues its radical course and remains close to Havana. In many ways its relationship with Cuba has been stronger this past year than Jamaica's ties with Cuba. The Jamaica vote is unlikely to alter this relationship, although Grenada may well feel more isolated in the months ahead.
About 200 Cubans are engaged in medical work, new airport construction, and education in Grenada. A handful are involved in training police and paramilitary elements on the island. This growing Cuban presence has been of deep concern not only to Washington but also to such neighboring islands as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.