Panel says Caribbean aid is first priority

A bipartisan panel of experts concludes that the United States should make a comprehensive and imaginative program for economic development its highest priority in the Caribbean Basin.

A statement released on Monday which introduces the panel's study argues that recent events in Grenada culminating in the US invasion of that island nation have provided ''additional evidence of Soviet and Cuban efforts to destabilize the region.'' But the panel considers these efforts to be ''aggravating factors'' secondary to the need for an enhanced economic development program.

The panel also emphasizes a need for flexible US diplomacy that is ''open to negotiating major bilateral and regional differences.''

The report represents a two-year effort by a working group of some 50 prominent Americans involved in business, universities, the AFL-CIO, government services, international banking, and research institutions. The report was sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan center for the formulation of policy recommendations on problems and opportunities shared by the Western democracies and Japan.

Brent Scowcroft, former national-security adviser to President Ford, and James R. Greene, dean of the School of Business at Monmouth College and adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University, co-chaired the working group. Mr. Greene is a former president of the American Express International Banking Corporation. General Scowcroft is widely known for the presidentially commissioned bipartisan study that he directed on US strategic weapons.

The new 46-page report is cautiously worded, but it implies that the Reagan administration could do much more to strengthen its economic and diplomatic efforts in the Caribbean and Central America.

Asked about this at a press conference, Scowcroft said, ''We think the administration is not doing enough, especially in the economic areas, and that perhaps it is not sufficiently open to dialogue. . . .

''The report comes out strongly for dialogue in the sense that we should not be afraid to try to discuss with any of the countries involved the issues and whether or not it is possible through diplomatic, political measures to come to a resolution of the problems,'' the general said.

''We do believe . . . that the long-term solution to the problems is socioeconomic development,'' continued Scowcroft. ''However, that doesn't help much in the short run, where countries are beset with overwhelming security problems like El Salvador. . . .''

Greene, a banker, also cautioned that while the Atlantic Council's group was proposing a comprehensive economic development program, it did not consider it realistic to call for ''vastly increased'' aid to the Caribbean and Central America.

''We're dealing with systemic, historic, traditional problems,'' said Greene. ''. . . We're dubious that bold, new strokes either are in the cards or are available. We're dubious that the US Congress and the US public are ready for those kinds of things.''

The study was presented to the Kissinger Commission on Central America on Oct. 19, only a week before the US invaded Grenada. The presidentially appointed Kissinger Commission is expected in its January report to recommend a big increase in aid to Central America.

The Atlantic Council group was divided over the question of how to deal with Nicaragua. A majority of the group was reported to be opposed to direct US military intervention in the region or secret paramilitary actions such as the Reagan administration has been supporting. But General Scowcroft dissented from the group's recommendation on secret action. And Mr. Greene said that, had the group been able to study the Grenada invasion, they might have had second thoughts about opposing such military intervention.

The panel calls for ''increasingly strong efforts to probe for possibilities of inducing the Cubans to cooperate seriously in the peaceful solutions of conflicts in Central America and southern Africa.''

''If significant progress can be made on these issues, the US should reconsider its policies toward Cuba,'' it says. ''If progress is not forthcoming , the US should explore appropriate sanctions. . . .''

Taking issue with the administration on Nicaragua, the report says ''while a policy of hostility may force the regime to moderate its policies over the short term, it is likely that a hostile policy serves primarily to strengthen the hard-line elements within the regime, possibly driving them closer to the Soviet Union. . . .''

The report displays less alarm than the Reagan administration has about possible turmoil in the Caribbean Basin. But it recommends that the US ''selectively extend'' military aid, and be disposed to increase military training programs.

On the economic front, it recommends:

* Expanded trade opportunities for the Caribbean Basin countries.

* Increased US bilateral aid and contributions to multilateral institutions in the region.

* ''A more balanced mix'' between official and private lending, and strengthening the International Monetary Fund.

* An increase in US technical and vocational education programs, leadership training, and cultural-exchange programs.

* Encouragement for the US private sector to play a greater role through aid from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank and through tax incentives.

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