Centering on the Caribbean

It is good to see the United States focusing on economic aid as it faces the problem of mounting ferment in the Caribbean region. Such a focus has been long in coming. Indeed it is sad that it has taken the discomfiting presence of a Fidel Castro on the US doorstep to arouse Washington's attention. Even without such a goad, policymakers in Washington should be acutely sensitive to the region's yearnings for social and economic progress and to the constructive role which the US can play in helping its neighbors.

President Reagan is understandably concerned about the strategic implications of leftist revolutions in Central America. A spread of Cuban and Soviet influence cannot be regarded lightly; it does represent a threat to be dealt with. But, if past experience is any guide, regional security against a communist tide will not be gained by military means. It will be achieved only when the people of the region have hope of a better future. Mr. Reagan's proposal for new trade benefits and economic aid to the Caribbean basin countries is an encouraging sign that greater effort may now be made to provide that hope.

To be sure, the $350 million aid package unveiled in a speech to the Organization of American States is far from the mini-Marshall Plan earlier talked of. Weighed against need, it is a very small amount. One third goes to embattled El Salvador alone. But it represents a creditable increase given US budget stringencies. Designating Costa Rica for substantial aid is especially noteworthy, for here is a democratically run country that can be helped before not after conditions get so bad they produce social turmoil.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Reagan chooses to concentrate on trade rather than direct aid. He calls for free entry to the US of all Caribbean products except textiles, improved arrangements for sugar sales, and tax breaks for US firms investing in the region.Inasmuch as most goods from the area already enter the US duty-free this is not the major concession it appears at first glance. But it is another step forward. Obviously the developing nations cannot make headway unless they gain easier access to US markets. There is expected to be resistance from US sugar and other interests to Mr. Reagan's plan so it will be up to Congress to stand up to the pressures. Certainly this is a more promising route than voting massive military aid to unpopular regimes.

As for Fidel Castro, the President did not spare some sharp words for the Cuban leader. Words, however, are not likely to move Cuba to abandon its support of revolutionary movements, and the question is what will. Mr. Castro has been sending some signals of a desire to negotiate with Washington but there does not appear to be much response from the administration. Here should be seen an opportunity for some creative diplomacy. How much more beneficial to US interests if Mr. Reagan could wean Cuba away from such shameful dependence on the Russians and encourage a pluralistic approach there. Instead of trying merely to quarantine Moscow's Latin satellite, the US should be seeking to ''infiltrate'' it -- by trade and other ties.

Realistically, even this would not guarantee the end of leftist influences in Central American and other nations. As change inevitably comes to the region, some countries may choose to experiment with systems that depart from the economic model the US prefers. But the United States has a better chance of nudging them in the direction of democracy and free enterprise by recognizing that the basic challenge is not Castroism or communism but poverty and social injustice. Mr. Reagan's Caribbean basin initiative is a modest but welcome beginning.

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