It comes as a shock to the political analyst at times to find that broad strategic interests may rest on the solution to very mundane problems. This may well be the case in the Caribbean.
It has long been frustrating to policy-makers in the US government that we have such difficulty relating effectively to a region so near to us. The size of the political entities, the sameness of their economies, and their competition with other areas of interest to us create special problems.
Currently, there is a new focus on this area. The United States is concerned that anti-American elements, backed by Cuba, have established themselves in areas right on its doorstep. There is talk of a stronger US military effort, of greater support to the security forces, of greater support to the security forces of friendly nations. But that may not be the problem -- or the solution.
Early in the Carter administration, a meeting was held with a group of Caribbean ambassadors in Washington to discuss the US relations with the area. Instead of a discusion of Cuban influence or security threats, the conversation revolved around three issues: rum, brassieres, and hotels.
Also during that administration, there was an extensive interagency review of security issues in the Caribbean. The most notable result was the revelation of the inadequacy of our educational exchange arrangements in the face of relatively substantial Soviet offers of scholarships to young people from lower income groups in the Caribbean islands.
These two illustrations demonstrate the nature of the issues with which the United States must treat in the region. They are not easy ones for this country to resolve. They are important, however, for the political and economic health of these countries and our relations with them.
Rum is a product of several of the Caribbean nations. US tariffs are designed to protect rum production in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The question of brassieres illustrates the broader issue of the imports of apparel manufactured by the cheaper labor of these islands. Of all the US protective restraints, those on apparel probably cut deepest in Caribbean countries because apparel manufacture is a natural early step in industrialization which helps absorb idle labor. The opposition of US apparel manufacturers, however, makes any change in the trade restrictions difficult. Any effort to make special concessions to the Caribbean countries would run counter to US global obligations under most favored nations clauses as well at GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) obligations.
The complaint on hotels arises from the fact that the United States has one rule for tax reductions for professional conventions held in the United States and a more stringent rule for conventions held in all other countries. The Caribbean countries desire very much to increase the tourist flow and, particularly, the lucrative convention trade. Again measures to help the Caribbean countries would face strong opposition from hotel firms in this country and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
A survey made last year of the educational exchange patterns in these countries showed that the modest private and official programs of the United States were providing for the education of about one-tenth the number of those who were being invited to the Soviet Union. Educational exchange funds have never been popular with many in Congress; in the present stringent period, they will be even less so. It is argued at times that those who study in the Soviet Union come home more anti-Soviet than those who remain at home. If that is true , do we still need to run the risk that it could be otherwise?
The small Caribbean nations, severely hurt by rising oil prices and general world conditions, want greater support from the United States. They want it in areas of greatest political benefit to their leaders, in areas which bring jobs. The key lies in the United States. To meet the challenge, we will need to give consideration not only to measures popular in the Congress, such as increased security assistance funds, but to those that are unpopular and less interesting: mundane matters like clothing and conventions.