Caribbean plan: boosting a region's economy; Reagan program would help private sector; some doubts raised

President Reagan's long-awaited Caribbean initiatives are likely to win him some early nods of appreciation -- but the program is certainly not all that Latin America wanted or expected.

The initiatives, as outlined by the President Feb. 24, will clearly not set the Caribbean Basin afire with enthusiasm.

Moreover, in emphasizing the administration's views that Cuba is behind the turmoil afflicting much of the region, Mr. Reagan lent strong support to the widely held Latin American view that his proposals are designed as much to combat Cuba and its influence as to combat the poverty that stalks the area.

His six-point proposal for aiding the Caribbean Basin, including Central America, contains some very innovative features that could in the long run prove extremely beneficial to the islands and nations of the region.

The centerpiece of the Reagan program is the duty-free entry of most Caribbean exports into the US market. If approved by Congress, this single aspect of the program could earn more than $100 million for the economies of the basin. It would be particularly helpful to the hard-pressed island nations of the Caribbean.

In addition, Mr. Reagan proposed ''significant tax incentives for (US business) investment in the Caribbean Basin.'' A start on this proposal is already under way on the island of Jamaica, a country that to many in the Reagan administration will spell the success or failure of the whole initiative.

Mr. Reagan took special note of Jamaica, claiming that the island's new leadership ''is reducing bureaucracy, dismantling unworkable controls and attracting new investment.''

Much of the ''Caribbean Basin initiative'' -- the name the administration has given the proposals -- concerns private-sector activities. And in making public his proposals to a meeting of the Organization of American States here, he repeated this theme over and over, saying that aid is only designed as ''a starting position from which they (the basin nations) can begin to earn their way.''

Mr. Reagan indicated, however, that he wants to give more aid to help those countries that ''are particularly hard hit economically.''

He did not spell out which countries would receive the $350 million for the program that he is asking Congress to appropriate this year. But it is believed that El Salvador, Jamaica, and Costa Rica will receive the bulk of that aid. El Salvador, in particular, is due for a sizable chunk of aid.

Nor did the President say how much, if any, of the aid would be for military purposes. But President Reagan is making another, separate, request for $60 million in new military aid for the region. Presumably he is thinking of El Salvador, but military aid did not come up in the President's speech.

The US committed $586 million to aid the countries of the Caribbean Basin this year, with $474 for economic assistance and $112 million for military equipment. El Salvador is receiving nearly a third of the $586 million.

Fully a third of the President's speech was devoted to security issues. He minced no words in his attacks on Cuba. He charged Cuba had received 66,000 tons of war supplies from the Soviet Union last year -- more than in any year since the 1962 missile crisis. He also said that Cuba has ''trained, armed, and directed extremists in guerrilla warfare and economic sabotage as part of a campaign to exploit troubles'' in Central America and the Caribbean. And he said that Cuba's goal was one of establishing ''Cuban-style Marxist-Leninist dictatorships'' in the area.

Nowhere did Mr. Reagan take notice of Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo's proposal that talks between Cuba and the US begin immediately with an aim ''to dampening down'' the conflict between the two countries.

To some observers the President's approach - not only on Cuba but also on Caribbean development -- was something of a monologue. Although he claimed that the US had worked closely with Canada, Mexico, and Venezeula in preparation of the program, there have been numerous complaints in Latin America that this was not the case.

The Reagan administration now will have to sell the program not only to skeptical Latin Americans but also to Congress, since most of the six points require congressional approval.

In addition to the proposals for duty-free imports from the Caribbean, tax incentives to encourage US businesses to invest in the region, and $350 million additional aid, the initiative calls for:

* Technical assistance and training for the private sector in Caribbean countries.

* Strong international support, including support from Europe and Japan, in the region.

* Special measures to insure that Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands ''benefit and prosper from this program.''

The administration has already begun to encourage Congress to act quickly on the program, which Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois, chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, described as being ''as important as the Marshall Plan was'' in rebuilding Europe following World War II.

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