Three weeks after a trio of murders on the Caribbean island of St. Croix spotlighted anew the economic stagnation of the US Virgin Islands, Washington is launching an effort to spur the territory's political and economic development.
President Carter, in a message to Congress Feb. 14, took note of the Virgin Islands' economic plight, along with that of the Pacific Island of Guam, in proposing a new administrative framework for the islands. He included two other Pacific territories -- American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands -- in the package.
Under the Carter proposal, the islands would be administered by a new office for territorial affairs within the Department of Interior aimed at giving special attention to the varrious islands" needs. The President said that the US would continue to encourage the islanders, who frequently have opted for continuing US relationships, to determine their own future status.
Currently, the islands are run by the Department of the Interior as unincorporated territories, an arrangement that is much looser than the one Mr. Carter proposes.
Both the Virgin Islands and Guam are looking into the drafting the new constitutions with a view toward some sort of revised status with the US. But lagging economic conditions are obviously their more pressing concern.
The economic plight of Guam is regarded as equal to that of the US Virgin Islands -- St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John -- which are probably better known on the mainland.
The Virgin Islands have high unemployment and a soaring population, with only limited job opportunities and essential social services available. Unemployment may be as high as 40 percent -- and growing. Moreover,ugly incidents, possibly racially motivated, have afflicted St. Croix, in particular, for the past decade.
Guam became a US possession in 1898 at the conclusions of the Spanish-American war, while the Virgin Islands were purchases from Denmark in 1917.
American Samoa came under the US flag at the end of World War I.It had been a German possession. The northern Marianas, part of the Marianas chain in the western Pacific, which includes Guam and a number of other islands to the south, became a US trust territory at the end of World War II. Previously, they were Japanese possessions. The Northern Marianas voted to separate themselves from the other islands and become a US commonwealth in 1975.
While the Pacific territories are predominantly Polynesian in racial content, the Virgin Islands are a mix. Since slavery was once a way a life on these islands, the basic population today is black. Under the Danes, there was a thin veneer of whites -- a situation that has continued under US administration, although the whie population has grown.
Added to this are Puerto Ricans who, as US citizens, are free to come and go to the neighboring Virgin Islands. Large numbers of them have migrated there over the years, taking semiskilled jobs. Add also blacks from the British and French islands to the south, who have come in increasing numbers over the past 30 years. These down-islanders have taken unskilled jobs and, in the process, created a heavy social burden on the islands.
President Carter's new administrative proposal for the islands could cause some problems. Although it would streamline the procedures for governing the islands, it cuts the present budget for the territories by $71 million, leaving a budget of $224 million.
The Carter administration says the new budget will concentrate on "essential" services and that the $224 million will go further than the present budget does in these "essential" areas.
In addition, the administration proposal would eliminate a lot of the bureaucratic red tape that now encumbers federal grants to the islands.
It remains to be seen whether the new proposals will win congressional approval.
Early reaction to the proposal on the islands is skeptical.
"We have a saying here," wrote the Daily News on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, "that says you have to prove your words before we will get excited about them. That's how we feel about the President's proposals."