One of the challenges that persistently confront the United States is to identify potentially important problems at relatively early stages, and to deal with them then. Too often the American tendency is to put off action until an easily manageable problem escalates into a full-blown crisis.
The island nations that ring the Caribbean are concerned that such postponing may be occurring again, and that they are the ones victimized. In a meeting this week in Columbia, S.C., they are seeking to regain the attention of the US - which they believe has shifted almost completely to the greater urgencies of Central America, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua. What they seek is increased foreign aid, in various forms.
What a difference a year makes: In the latter half of 1983 the Caribbean was, if briefly, in the forefront of American thought. It began moving its way forward in early August of last year, when President Reagan signed into law a proposal he had sought for providing trade and other economic aid to 27 nations, including those in the Caribbean Basin. It was aimed at helping develop their economies over the long haul.
Last October the Caribbean burst onto center stage when American troops invaded tiny Grenada to thwart what US leaders said was a growing Cuban presence.
Despite the Cuban military arsenal discovered on that island, the most fundamental problem of the Caribbean nations remains poverty - somewhat analagous to the situation that prevailed in Central America before the installation of the Marxist-oriented government in Nicaragua and the insurgency in El Salvador.
The Kissinger Commission pointed out that the roots of the Salvadorean conflict are indigenous, with the bulk of the people in poverty while a few live in luxury. The situation in much of the Caribbean Basin is similar: Haiti is often cited as an example of a nation saddled with an enormous poverty problem. At their meeting this week, the Caribbean nations called for a study of their region's needs similar to the work of the Kissinger Commission.
After the Grenada invasion, Caribbean leaders thought their region might have a top billing in Washington for a while, but other issues interposed: difficulties in El Salvador, controversy over the continued US role in Lebanon, the warming of the Iran-Iraq war. And, not least, the coming presidential election in the US itself.
Now Caribbean leaders are concerned that US resolve has weakened to aid them in building Caribbean economies and eradicating poverty. They fear that a distracted America is letting its economic aid decline, whereas they had been led to believe it would increase modestly.
For their part, Caribbean leaders have agreed to undertake a major effort to strengthen trade with their neighbors, and to restructure their economies.
For its part, the US should continue to help, lest the area be fertile territory for Marxist ideology, as Caribbean inhabitants have been warning in recent years. The assistance needed - in economic aid, investment, and trade - is modest by US standards. But it is a clear application of the old adage that a stitch in time saves nine.
No one wants another Grenadian invasion, or Salvadorean insurgency, if they can be prevented. The best insurance the US could obtain is by making sure it is paying adequate attention now to the Caribbean nations' economic needs.