Reagan and the Caribbean

The United States has a "third border" -- the Caribbean area -- that is threatened by economic instability and communist encroachment. Full marks to the Reagan administration for urgently seeking an effective policy toward the Caribbean and neighboring Central America.

A key element is the recognition that military security must be combined with increased action against the economic causes of political discontent that can invite Cuban or other Soviet-backed adventurism. Other promising strands are stress on international cooperation and eslishment of private business in bolstering peaceful development.

Fresh glimpses of the emerging policy have appeared this week in press reports and in the worlds of Secretary of State Haig and others during a Washington foreign policy conference. The thinking partakes of an administration view on the developing world in general -- that the US ought to join in building on a third-world realization that the West has more to offer than Moscow. But the Caribbean, so close to home, has a special claim.

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In recent years the tendency of Caribbean voters -- notably in Jamaica -- has been to turn away from the far left. But political turmoil remains and economic distress has worsened in some Caribbean and Central American countries. Though the US focus has been on El Salvador, the region as a whole needs the new attention being given it. Beyond the details of assistance -- which, after all, will have to be tailored to the diversity of the nations involved -- it would be a signal achievement to establish a momentum of concern and action for the "third border" lands.

The overall costs have not been reported. But some idea of the proportions appears in budget requests for Latin America and the Caribbean earlier this year. Of a fiscal 1982 total of $478 million in bilateral assistance, three quarters was earmarked for Caribbean and Central American countries. El Salvador, Jamaica, and the eastern Caribbean islands were specified as of most concern. But funds were also reserved for Nicaragua should its conduct warrant resumption of aid. If Soviet tanks are going there, as unconfirmed reports have said, such resumption would be out of the question. But if not, and if Nicaragua meets US conditions of accepting a pluralist society and not channeling arms to guerrillas in El Salvador, then aid should be available. As a State Department official has said, the private businessmen, small farmers, free labor unions, and other persistent moderating forces have earned US support.

As for Jamaica, the US is providing major assistance in connection with the large-scale international aid efforts under negotiation. With Prime Minister Seaga rejecting Marxist solutions and trying to bring back the economy through Western-style emphasis on private investment, the results will be scrutinized throughout the region. US bilateral aid is targeted on Jamaica's private sector and energy needs -- all in line with stimulating private foreign investment in Jamaica. The good news is that the State Department expects to see the Jamaican economy growing again by the end of this year -- though then the challenge will be to maintain the thrust.

So it will be important for the US policy, once it is full fledged, to contain the mechanisms and resources for sustained effort. Don't forget the Carter administration also focused on the Caribbean, and with some results as well as fanfare, though the impetus faded. This time, with other nations joining in to a greater degree, there is a chance to keep up the battle for the best interests of the region -- interests which can be mutually beneficial to its trading partners and all those resis ting intervention in small countries.

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