Caribbean leaders skeptical about US development plan

The people who are supposed to benefit most from the Reagan administration's Caribbean development program are increasingly skeptical about the initiative. Although administration spokesmen promise that the program will soon be launched, leaders of many of the Caribbean islands doubt that it will ever get off the ground. And if the plan does move forward, these leaders doubt it will be ample enough to satisfy the islands' growing economic and social needs.

Caribbean officials are making their doubts clear at the fifth annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean, a session that has drawn together top United States Caribbean specialists and leaders from more than 20 Caribbean islands.

In both guarded public statements and less temperate private remarks, the Caribbean officials are indicating their worry that the Reagan pronouncements on the Caribbean are all talk and no substance.

After all, nine months have passed since the administration began talking about a Caribbean basin development plan and in the meantime islanders say they have seen nothing of substance to back up US rhetoric.

The islanders were disappointed with US trade representative William Brock's keynote speech at the Nov. 29 session. Brock was a stand-in for President Reagan , and he explained that the administration has not rushed to formulate its Caribbean policy because it doesn't envision ''a quick-fix solution.''

Brock said the administration seeks to achieve ''the long-term economic well-being of the nations of the Caribbean.'' That line drew hoots. One prime minister retorted, ''We can go down the drain while Washington dawdles, just as Rome burned while Nero fiddled.'' Others echoed his complaint.

Mr. Brock's warning that the Reagan administration is ''being careful not to overstate what can be achieved by our mutual efforts'' fell on some angry ears.

Prime Minister Vere C. Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, said much the same in his formal remarks Nov. 30:

''It would be helpful for the administration to make clear how they intend to implement their promised participation.''

Besides their questions about whether the US is serious about the Caribbean, the islanders' worry about the US emphasis on private initiative instead of public aid.

Says Mr. Bird:

''Already the US ranks very low in the list of Western aid-giving nations in terms of aid as a proportion of its GNP. . . . Now there are plans to reduce aid even further with representatives of the US administration on record as saying that developing countries must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. None of us disagree with that concept, but first we must have the straps by which to pull up the boot.

''And, we will never have the straps if the order of priority does not place the required aid at the forefront.''

Carlton Alexander, a Jamaican businessman associated with Prime Minister Edward Seaga, wondered whether Washington realized the urgency of the region's problems.

''Time is short; the problems are immense; and the danger of no solution too horrendous to minimize,'' he observed.

Mr. Alexander and other Caribbean leaders here are also worried about the role of Cuba in the Caribbean. They talk of the appeal that Cuba and its radical solutions have for many of their fellow islanders.

''The big danger for us,'' says a Barbadian delegate, ''is that while we tinker with aid, whether from the private or the public sector, the Cuban appeal grows as it offers solutions to our problems.''

Key Caribbean problems that surfaced in the sessions:

* Unemployment. The population boom and too few jobs keep at least 10 percent of work force idle. On some islands unemployment reaches 30 percent.

* Oil import bills. Many islands have been hard hit at a time when tourism is soft.

* Hurricanes. Crops have been ravaged by hurricanes in recent years. World prices for sugar and coffee are low.

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