When President Carter took office nearly four years ago one prominent anxiety in Washington was the possible spread of Soviet-style communism from Cuba to the other islands which lie just below Uncle Sam's southeastern doorstep in the Caribbean.
Subsequent events in the Caribbean must have been disappointing to Moscow and are humiliating to Fidel Castro in Cuba. There has been no stampede to join his movement and emulate his economics and politics. Only one other Caribbean country, Grenada, is today formally associated with Cuba and the Soviet Union. All others are associated more or less with the Western noncommunist community.
One, Nicaragua, is still in an uncertain phase with both left and right elements in its new and not yet stabilized government. It might slip into the Cuban orbit, but it is not there now. Some are under right-wing dictatorships. Most have more or less free democratic systems. The trend in elections has been definitely rightward. Jamaica is the most recent to vote the left out of power and moderates back in.
The danger to stability and tranquility in the region now comes from the right rather than the left. The area is not drifting toward communism. There does appear to be a rising tide of tyranny and terrorism from the right, which, if unchecked, could lead eventually to another swing to the left. If the political pendulum swings too far one way, there is usually an excessive swing back.
The real question now is how far the present trend to the right will go. Recent events are ringing the warning gongs:
Nov. 29 in El Salvador 11 persons were kidnapped and killed. All were prominent leftist politicians or public opinion leaders. A rightist paramilitary group claimed responsibility for the killings. Estimates of the number killed in political troubles in El Salvador over the past 13 months run to over 8,000.
Nov. 30 Haiti's government police roamed through the capital, Port-au-Prince, and rounded up a large number (no precise figure is available) of politicians, journalists, and human rights advocates.
Unrest and dissent in Haiti have been heightened since Nov. 16 when 206 Haitian refugees were brought back forcibly from the Bahamas. They had been trying to reach the United States.
Both El Salvador and Haiti are small, densely populated countries with limited resources. The annual per capita income in El Salvador is $503; in Haiti it is $220. Haiti's predicament is aggravated by the fact that the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has an annual per capita income of $694 -- more than three times that of Haiti.
Political murder is a daily occurrence in El Salvador. Political disappearance seems to be a daily occurrence in Haiti.
The United States is both the main supplier and the main customer for both countries. Haiti was originally a French colony and gained its independence in 1804. El Salvador was a Spanish colony until 1821. Haiti was occupied by US troops from 1915 until 1934.
Except for Cuba, which is a communist tyranny and little influenced by Western ideas, tyranny in the Caribbean has been tempered during the past four years by President Carter's human rights policy. The whole area is now awaiting some signal from the next president. Will Ronald Reagan take up the cause of human rights and use his influence to induce governments such as the one in Haiti to be less careless in its treatment of people? Or will absence of signals be taken as license for reviving right-wing tyranny?
It would be impossible to prove a connection between the Carter human rights policy and the decline of cummunism in the Caribbean. It is a fact that during the four years of the Carter emphasis on human rights, extremism was on the decline in the Caribbean and communism was recessive, almost to the point of disappearing. The repudiation of Marxism by the voters of Jamaica on Oct. 30 was a startling example of the decline of Cuban and Soviet influence in the area.
There will continue to be trouble in countries such as Haiti until they solve their problem of overpopulation. That country and several others in the area are breeding people faster than jobs. That condition must be reversed before there can be a rising standard of living followed by political stability. Meanwhile Washington as the biggest and richest and most powerful neighbor will increase or reduce the amount to human misery and degradation by its policies toward the area. There, they wait for a signal.