THE return of socialist Michael Manley as Prime Minister of Jamaica in last month's decisive electoral victory over Edward Seaga, the so-called ``Caribbean Reagan,'' suggests widespread popular discontent among the island's 2.3 million inhabitants over Mr. Seaga's pro-market economic policies. Despite heavy doses of capitalist medicine - rising tourism, open trade, aid, and reduced taxes and government intervention - average living standards for Jamaica's poor majority have continued to decline between 1980 and the present. The same erosion in per capita incomes occurred before when Mr. Manley followed roughly the opposite policies between 1972 and 1980, and was ousted by Mr. Seaga. Why this political see-saw in Jamaica, and in the Caribbean arena generally?
Stable, pro-capitalist, pro-Western democracies do not easily thrive atop fragile island economies. These unstable economies cannot support a broad, permanent middle class that would, in the electoral process, ensure the continuity of political moderation.
In the British West Indies the past two decades have witnessed dozens of elections that have effected the peaceful transfer of power toward relatively moderate governments. But there have been notable exceptions: socialist regimes in Jamaica and Guyana, and the Marxist experiment in Grenada.
Much of this political discontinuity is due to harsh Caribbean economic realities. Island economies are particularly unbalanced with over-reliance on tourism and a few exports like bauxite, sugar, bananas, and spices. Such industries are overly sensitive to recessions in industrial countries, their primary markets. This instability is further intensified by commodity price fluctuations, currency realignments, and periodic natural disasters.
For example, when health-conscious Americans shift to artificial sweeteners, the Caribbean sugar industry is thrown into depression and long-term layoffs. When the dollar falls in value, essential imports from Europe become unusually expensive. Hurricanes like last summer's Gilbert devastate agriculture and disrupt communications for months. It may take years to rebuild destroyed housing stock and commercial facilities.
Economic instability strains the democratic framework. Periodic crises promote the flight of capital and the emigration of entrepreneurs and middle-class professionals who have the most to lose from persistent vacillations and long-term uncertainty.
What elements are left after the exodus? First, there is intense political participation, not only because of high literacy rates and small country size, but also because political expression has always been more accessible than economic mobility. Second, political dissatisfaction runs deep because the dominant problems of unemployment and imported food and fuel inflation are beyond local solutions. Third, repeated failures to improve the situation produce repressive tactics by incumbents to quell discontent as well as a propensity for political experimentation among dissidents.
These ingredients provide a recipe for sometimes volatile political changeovers as the pendulum of power swings back and forth between coalitions led by the conservative, pro-market mercantile elite and the more left-leaning popular parties embracing urban laborers and the rural poor. These low-income groups, the base of Mr. Manley's strength in Jamaica, for example, frequently form an electoral majority that can rock the traditional system. Because of their economic marginality, they have weak attachments to existing political arrangements.
As a result, in the absence of a middle-class stronghold and in a climate of continuing economic crisis and political frustration, the machinery of democracy has no built-in tendency to keep it on course. Since economic benefits are limited and not widely shared, there is no guarantee of a permanent electoral majority to ensure political stability and continuity. Moderate socialist or even avowedly Marxist regimes can occasionally surface.
To help modify the economic instability and political fluidity of the region, US policy should firmly establish a long-term commitment to bolster the area's economy, rather than slip again into the familiar groove of short-term military interventionism (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Grenada) when matters get out of hand.
Such a commitment means first maintaining a vigorous US economy, since America is the region's foremost commercial partner. The Caribbean Basin Initiative - promising wider US markets, private investment, and aid - is a favorable first step. Between 1983 and 1988, Caribbean manufacturing exports into the US (mainly electronics and textiles) have doubled in value. But the program must be expanded in scale and complemented with other serious efforts to support regional projects and institutions.
A sustained economic strategy clearly focused on the preventive economic solution - to help nurture a viable middle class on which to anchor democracy - is the best guarantee for long-term political moderation in the region. This advance should result in a stronger, more mature, and interdependent Western Hemisphere and make the gunboat diplomacy of the past increasingly irrelevant.