Libya dips toe in Caribbean

Faced with serious economic troubles, three leftist-oriented Caribbean countries have made pilgrimages in recent weeks to Libya to see what help they can get from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The results so far suggest a growing "Libyan connection" in the Caribbean.

Actually, Libyan money and interest in the Caribbean are not new. But the latest evidence of this interest suggests a stepped-up interest by the oil-rich Mideast nation. Just what Libya will get in return is not clear, but Caribbean observers expect the Libyans to make their influence felt.

Grenada's Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, a British-educated Marxist, stopped off in Libya at the end of a three-country Mideast swing and came home with what he termed "the promise of a few dollars." Grenadan government sources suggested the figure was in the neighborhood of $4 million for agricultural development.

A few weeks earlier, mainland Guyana, whose Prime Minister, Linden Forbes Burnham, is increasingly buffeted by both political and economic troubles, signed a trade agreement with Libya. Details have yet to be disclosed, but it is though to include the sale of Guyanese rice in exchange for Libyan oil.

And Jamaica's National Security Minister, the colorful Dudley Thompson, is just back from a Mideast mission during which he spent considerable time in Libya. He returned to Kingston quite tight-lipped about a rumored $50 million loan, which some government sources said he obtained from Colonel Qaddafi.

This growing scramble for new financing results from mounting economic pressures on all three of the former British colonies. In each case, the prime minister -- Bishop of Grenada, Burnham of Guyana, and Manley of Jamaica -- has been under sharp attack from political opponents for his country's economic malaise.

None of them has been able to get much aid from the United States or other traditional Western sources; and the socialist bloc countries, mainly the Soviet Union and Cuba, have indicated they cannot help. Yet the needs are pressing.

Jamaica is clearly closest to economic collapse.Food riots, consumer shortages, and escalating fuel prices are all part of the picture. Gasoline-rationing programs of one sort or another are contemplated. Gas currently markets for $2.65 a gallon and is expected to rise to $3.00 soon.

Jamaican missions have gone to both Venezuelan and Mexico in search of oil contracts that would hold the price of fuel at levels considerably below the current $30- and $35-a-barrel price the nation now faces.

With some uncertainty here over these missions, a firm Libyan loan of $50 million would, in the eyes of some officials, take some of the heat off the Manley government.

Other observers, noting Jamaica's whopping foreign debt of more than $500 million, argue that a Libyan loan of $50 million would "be peanuts," as a columnist in the Gleaner, Kingston's leading newspaper, put it recently.

Moreover, sources in the government were talking a week ago of a $60 million loan from Libya, then scaled it down to $50 million. There is some suggestion that it might be much less, if indeed there is any loan at all. There apparently is no oil included in the loan talk.

Any such Libyan loan would be a psychological boost for the Manley government , which is facing an International Monetary Fund demand that it cut expenses. An IMF loan of $250 million was suspended because the government was beyond IMF requirements.

Neither Grenada nor Guyana has economic difficulties as serious as those of Jamaica. But the Libyan bailout in both cases clearly eases their balance-of-payments problems and gives them breathing room.

At the same, the question of what Libya will get in return interests Caribbean observers.

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