President Carter has stumbled into a thicket of ambiguity with his recent statements on the relative importance of the Caribbean to the United States. And in the process he has provoked a considerable backlash from Caribbean political leaders, who wonder just what he meant in the first place.
In White House remarks to a group of editors in late January, Mr. CArter said he saw "no military threat" in the Caribbean that would require US action and therefore he "would not want to threaten military force."
Moreover, he told the visiting editors that he could not define the region as one of "vital interest where military action by our country would be necessary."
Although it is taking it out of context, the words "vital interest" came down hard on many US allies in the Caribbean, with especially sharp reactions from Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
It is not lost on Caribbean islanders that President Carter, in his State of the Union addess Jan. 20, termed the Persian Gulf's oil supply routes a US "vital interest."
In effect, the islanders are saying: But what of us? We always thought we were important to the US. And now we are being told we are not as important as the Gulf area.
The President's remarks also caused consternation among US officials and businessmen in the area.
The White House and State Department jumped into the fray soon afterward to clarify what the President meant to say.
One White House spokesman said the Carter administration was simply trying to show its concern for the Caribbean without suggesting that the US would intervene militarily as it did in the Dominican Republic in 1965.
A State Department spokesman called attention to the President's State of the Union message, in which he warned of a possible Cuban threat in the Caribbean. Mr. Carter said the US stood ready "to assist those threatened by outside intervention."
Thus the President is trying to pursue two policy aims, it is argued -- one that indicates US readiness to use force in the Caribbean, and another downplays US military presence so as not to cause alarm in the area.
To this, a native of Barbados commented: "He can't have it both ways. It was another example of confused signals from Washington. Such confusion has been commonplace in United States policy over the years, but is more evident with the Carter administration."
This view is echoed by newspaper comments in Barbados, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands. Many island leaders also indicate they are puzzled.
A Jamaican who has long been a friend of the US and who today is a member of the island's socialist-leaning government says:
"We just never know what is going to come out of Washington, and we have doubts that the Carter administration is sincere in its oft-voiced proffers of friendship and aid."
All this notwithstanding, Washington goes out of its way these days to express concern over the growing Cuban, Soviet, and Libyan activities in the Caribbean. Administration spokesmen call attention to Cuban activities in Grenada, Soviet activities on that island and on neighboring St. Lucia, and the growing evidence of Libyan financial assistance to several islands in return for unspecified Libyan influence in the area.
Caribbean specialists talk of the vulnerability of a number of islands to Cuban influence. The Cuban danger is not the exporting of revolutions, which was a concern in the 1960s and early '70s, but rather President Castro's quick responses to economic and social needs on the islands.
Washington argues that a multinational aid program is needed in the region to replace the vacuum left by the slow decline of British influence and aid and to counter the Cuban influence.
The Carter administration has proposed unilateral US aid -- following a visit to the area last August by former Assistant Secretary of State Philip C. Habib.
US aid, including food shipments, to the Caribbean totaled $155 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. There will be considerably more assistance this year. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that more money is needed to keep the islands afloat.