How US Hurts Caribbean Basin

The pope's visit to Cuba underscores the continuing ineffectiveness of United States policy toward that country. It has failed either to bring about change in the Fidel Castro government, or to help prepare a new generation of Cubans for life after the dictator.

This strategy has minimized our influence on Cuba's present and future course. And although US relations with the other nations of the Caribbean and Central America (the so-called Caribbean Basin) are far better, bit by bit we are alienating ourselves from them as well.

The US has one overriding interest in the Caribbean Basin - that this group of neighboring countries has healthy economies and stable democratic politics. Americans feel the consequences when the region's economies turn sour and the politics become violent and repressive. There was chaos and bloodshed in Haiti a few years ago, and throughout Central America before that. The flow of migrants to the US from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala date from that period.

Political disorder and economic distress make small countries easy targets for drug traffickers and other international criminals. Markets also are at stake. Even without Cuba, the Caribbean Basin has a population of 40 million people, who purchase half of their imports from US suppliers. And everybody loses when the US intervenes with military force in the region, which it has done with some frequency.

In the case of Mexico, US decisionmakers plainly understand the vital importance of having a politically and economically healthy neighbor. That was a key reason for proceeding with NAFTA. It motivated the US to orchestrate a financial rescue for Mexico in 1995. It also explains why - despite fierce pressure from Congress - the Clinton administration stood firm in its decision to certify that Mexico was a reliable ally in the antidrug war.

This stands in stark contrast to recent US policy toward the Caribbean Basin, with the possible exception of Haiti, where the administration has stuck to its guns. Here are the specifics:

* US annual assistance to the Caribbean totaled more than $200 million five years ago. Today, it is less than $25 million. In Central America, Washington provided support of more than $1 billion a year in the 1980s; that has dropped to less than $200 million.

* The diminished aid hasn't been replaced with trade opportunities as promised. Indeed, the Caribbean Basin Initiative, designed to promote US trade and investment, is providing fewer benefits as commerce and capital are increasingly diverted to Mexico. Congress routinely has turned down administration efforts to enhance the CBI.

* Washington initiated and won a case in the World Trade Organization against the banana exporting regimes of several countries of the Caribbean. Although correct in principle and law, the US action could be devastating to the economies of some of the region's poorest countries - without producing much benefit for US consumers or producers.

* In recent years the US has begun to deport large numbers of convicted criminals back to their countries in the Caribbean and Central America - more than 1,000 a year each, for example, to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Many are extremely dangerous and, if they had been released in the US, would be kept under supervision. Although the evidence is still anecdotal, this practice has contributed to a burgeoning crime wave throughout the region. As a result, we could end up paying the price of more illegal migration.

NONE of these actions was taken by the US with the idea of harming the countries of the Caribbean or Central America - but together they are causing immense damage that, over time, will become increasingly hard to correct. The US needs to start over with a coherent, integrated approach directed to working with our Caribbean and Central American neighbors, including Cuba, to build healthy political and economic futures for them and us.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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