The Caribbean confab

The United States has made a good first step in nudging along a multinational approach to economic aid for the poorer countries of the Caribbean and Central America. To be sure, nothing of headline magnitude took place at the meeting in the Bahamas this week of high officials of the US, Mexico, Venezuela, and Canada. But it can be counted a positive development that the US was willing to meet with other nations concerned with this highly volatile region and -- something that has not always happened -- to listen to what they have to say.

Whether or not a Caribbean economic program actually takes shape will depend on the vigor with which Washington follows through on the results of the Bahamas get-together. The joint communique was couched in the kind of generalities that could scuttle the initiative if US determination flags. Thus, the participants agreed to begin "immediate consultations" with governments in the area and to start working on the substance of the aid pakcage by the end of the year. An early constructive step would be for the four countries themselves to schedule regular meetings in order to keep the ball moving forward toward fashioning of a practical plan.

In effect each nation will be desigining its own program for aid, trade, and investments in the region, and the programs will then be coordinated to avoid duplication. Inasmuch as each donor country has it own political and economic approach, positions were prudently tailored in order to achieve consensus on broad objectives. In a concession to Mexico, for instance, it was agreed that the plan would not include military assitance and that every country in the area would be eligible for aid, including Cuba and Nicaragua. At the same time donors would not have to aid every country in the region -- a bow to the US which prefers to help nations with strong free-enterprise systems.

Many people voice skepticism that an economic approach in general will bear much fruit until the bedevilling problems of insurgency are ironed out and political stability restored in such countries as El Salvador and Guatemala. Political differences between the donor countries especially between the US and Mexico, are also seen as roadblocks to progress along cooperative lines.

Yet, if the idea has not yet taken wing, it is decidedly worth pursuing. If it were not for the conditions of desperate poverty in which millions in the Caribbean and Central America find themselves, the region today would not be confronted with the challenge of communist penetration. The fundamental antidote to Cuban and Soviet influences lies not in military assistance -- however much this may be needed at the moment -- but in lifting the economies of the region, giving people hope in their future, and thus removing the soil of discontent and frustration in which communism flourishes.

Economic development, in short, is a crucial ingredient of true security. It is to the credit of the Reagan administration that it has begun to focus somewhat more on this aspect of things in its crusade against Soviet expansionism. The turbul ent Caribbean area can only benefit if that focus continues

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