Reagan resurrects the Caribbean initiative, but how fervently?

A year ago, with fanfare, the Reagan administration launched its Caribbean Basin Initiative - a program of aid and other economic help for one of the world's most depressed areas.

Quickly dubbed the CBI, the administration's plan was heralded as an item of ''high priority'' - designed to show United States concern for the Western Hemisphere.

Yet a year later, the full program is still not off the ground. Key elements await elusive congressional approval.

While its economic aid feature of $350 million was approved in the last session of Congress, its innovative and perhaps most important feature - 12 years of duty-free treatment for many Caribbean products - remains merely a hope. So is its proposal to extend the 10 percent domestic US investment tax credit to investments in Caribbean countries for five years.

Moreover, in the eyes of many observers, the whole initiative remains low on the White House list of action items - just when worsening unemployment, debt, and recession make it most vital.

Throughout the Caribbean, where the CBI was touted early on in glowing terms by some US officials as the answer to the region's needs, there is a feeling that once again the US has let the region down.

That reaction may be premature. In late December the President tried to assure some skeptics ''that the CBI will not die.'' He then assured some Caribbean leaders personally the program will not languish.

President Reagan is quick to point out that the aid component has already been met. What remains, he admits, is congressional passage of duty-free arrangements and investment tax credits.

For a nation like the Dominican Republic, hard-hit by plummeting sugar prices and lower US sugar import quotas, duty-free entry into the US for other products would go a long way toward compensating for the sugar loss. The same benefit would result for most other Caribbean nations.

But this will not happen unless Congress approves the full CBI. And it appears that more presidential lobbying is required to get the program through Congress - and to prevent protectionist amendments from being added.

From the start, there were calls by members of the House Ways and Means Committee to exclude petroleum products, textiles, shoes, and other leather goods from the duty-free list.

There was also plenty of criticism of the CBI's inclusion of Central America, particularly El Salvador, in the proposal. Some critics somewhat cynically saw the program as a smokescreen for Reagan administration military aims in El Salvador. Close to half the economic aid in the package is destined for El Salvador, a nation that doesn't even have a Caribbean coastline.

Moreover, critics noted that fully 80 percent of the aid is going to three countries - El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Jamaica, only one of which is actually inm the Caribbean. That would leave precious little for the remaining 25 nations and territories that were to be included in the package. Many of them, it was argued, are far more hard-pressed than the three.

At the moment, most are facing increasing unemployment. Take Jamaica as the example. Some 40 percent of the work force is out of work and their ranks are growing.

The CBI countries are also hit by high foreign debts. Although the amounts are small in comparison with those $80 billion tabs racked up by Brazil and Mexico, the specific amounts for Caribbean countries represent a larger chunk of gross domesticproduct than do Brazil and Mexico's debts. Jamaica's foreign debt equals about 40 percent of its GDP; in Mexico and Brazil, it is between 10 and 20 percent.

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