Columbia, S.C. — Caribbean leaders have appealed to President Reagan to appoint a commission - similar to the Kissinger commission that studied Central America - to look at their region's needs.
Several of the 15 leaders meeting here have also made it clear they would like to see expansion and acceleration of the President's Caribbean Basin initiative, an economic development program now six months old.
The Caribbean leaders apparently believe that a presidential commission would focus new American attention on their region, demonstrate that the Caribbean is as important to the United States as is Central America, and help to mobilize slow moving bureaucracies both in the region and in the US in the search for solutions.
What the Caribbean leaders have in mind is a commission along the lines of the one headed by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, which in January delivered a lengthy report to President Reagan on Central America. One participant in the conference here said the Caribbean leaders felt ''left out'' by the Kissinger report. To these leaders, appointment of a commission on the Caribbean would be a sign that Reagan considers their region to be of the highest importance to the United States.
In a speech Wednesday evening at the end of the first day of a two-day conference here, Prime Minister Kennedy A. Simmonds of St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis said security in the Caribbean depended as much on economic development and the creation of jobs as it did on the force of arms. He said the region was vulnerable and constituted the ''soft underbelly'' of the United States.
''The United States of America does have a problem on its doorstep on which it places great importance - the problem of Central America,'' Mr. Simmonds said. ''But ... the string of islands which is the Caribbean, the soft underbelly of the United States, is every bit as important.''
''We have a Caribbean identity that is separate from Central America,'' said Simmonds, who urged in his speech that a commission be established to look at the region's problems.
Simmonds said that while there are obvious benefits to be had for the island nations of his region from President Reagan's Caribbean Basin initiative, or CBI , as it is sometimes called, there are also benefits in it for the American people.
Simmonds is the leader of a nation of only 45,000 people, one of whose islands, Nevis, was the birthplace of the first American secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
The centerpiece of the CBI is the extension of duty-free treatment to a number of Caribbean exports to the United States for a period of 12 years. The program also calls for US aid to the private sector of Caribbean economies and offers the private sector technical assistance and training. But the initiative was weakened by congressional moves, encouraged by the American labor movement, to protect some US products from duty-free competition from the Caribbean and by Congress's failure to approve a proposed tax incentive for investment in the Caribbean.
The CBI was at the top of the agenda of the Caribbean leaders who gathered here, and much of their first day of meetings was spent discussing it and the need for assistance to implement it.
The leaders also discussed the sizable external debts of their nations and territories, but produced no answers to the debt problem.
In a briefing for reporters, St. Lucia's Prime Minister, John Compton, described the problem as ''frightening.''
''We haven't come to a solution,'' he said. ''Has anybody found the solution? We've got debts to pay but we haven't got the wherewithal to pay them.''
However, Prime Minister Compton described the South Carolina conference as useful, in part because it has been held ''away from the political heat.''
In private comments, several other leaders attending the conference said with a few exceptions they had never felt more united as a Caribbean group. Prime Minister M. Eugenia Charles of the island of Dominica proposed the South Carolina meeting become an annual affair.
A diplomat attending the conference said the US-led Grenada invasion of last October is one thing that brought many East Caribbean leaders here. The invasion , which many of them supported, forced them to work together in ways they had never worked before.
Four nations that opposed the Grenada intervention - the Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, and Trinidad-Tobago - were absent from the conference. Participants said all four had been invited for reasons that, in the majority of cases, did not have to do with the invasion of Grenada.
Yesterday President Reagan, who flew to the conference at the University of South Carolina, focused heavy criticism on the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
He told participants that the Grenada operation stopped a ''communist power grab'' in the Caribbean, and warned that the Soviet Union and Cuba are still spending ''enormous resources to undermine our liberty and independence.''
The President also denounced the elections in November in Nicaragua as a ''Soviet-style sham.'' He said the situation there ''is not promising, but if the Sandinistas would keep their original commitment - permit free elections, respect human rights, and establish an independent nation - conflict in the region would subside.''