The Caribbean Provides a Paradise for Inputting

'BANANAS is dead,'' says Rainbow Man from his roadside souvenir stand above the colorful Caribbean fishing village of Anse La Raye, St. Lucia. ''The price is just too low and the economy of St. Lucia is really going down bad.''

Rainbow Man is a St. Lucian calypso singer - hawking hand-carved coconut bird feeders to tourists is only a day job - and he sings often about the shaky prospects facing this small island and its neighbors along the eastern rim of the Caribbean. ''We need more factories, more hotels,'' he says.

Officials from across the region agree with his analysis: The banana economy is going bust as global free trade - roaring through like one of the periodic hurricanes here - sweeps aside the region's long-standing protected status in Europe. Officials also agree that island governments had better scramble to attract new industries. But in their search for economic diversity, they are wisely looking beyond the obvious fallbacks of ''more factories, more hotels,'' which have proved unreliable economic bulwarks in the past.

Instead, their sweep 'round the horizon has turned up an unexpected target industry: information processing.

St. Lucia and other Caribbean islands are making a surprise pitch to become the Western Hemisphere's clearinghouse for the growing number of business typing chores known collectively as ''informatics'': credit-card application processing, manuscript typesetting, insurance-claim processing, directory publishing, indexing, and other inputting tasks. Airline reservations and 1-800 customer services are possibilities.

''This is heads-down typing with a degree of judgment involved,'' says Everist Jean Marie, executive director of the St. Lucia National Development Corporation. ''We're taking this industry very seriously. We think it's the area where we can generate the highest number of jobs.''

A strategy of replacing low-skilled agricultural jobs with computer-based data processing is at the least a bold gambit and, if it works, a visionary one. But if nothing else, St. Lucia's attempt to create a clerical class from scratch is a welcome test of an idea recently touted by some economists: Certain developing countries have a chance to leapfrog directly from agrarian to information-based economies, skipping all the dirty, smokestack-industrial stages in between.

''This is the best option for the Caribbean, where they are never going to be the lowest labor market for manufacturing,'' says Alan Brumbaugh, a Chicago-based consultant hired in 1994 by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to study the region's promise as an offshore data-processing capital. ''These are clean jobs above-average in pay, and they will help build a knowledge-based economy. It's definitely a viable business for the islands.''

Indeed, the scheme's proponents argue convincingly that the nine OECS countries are ready to enter the computer age - in spite of their notable lack of computers. The islands are stable, democratic, and English speaking. They house a growing pool of unemployed, literate secondary-school graduates who command about half the comparable US wage. And perhaps most important, they boast a surprisingly advanced telecommunications infrastructure featuring fiber optics and high-speed digital capacity.

Mr. Brumbaugh is now advising the OECS on how to market these assets to American and Canadian companies. He also helped design the incentive packages that several of the countries are now pushing through their parliaments, which include tax holidays, corporate tax rates as low as 5 percent, deductible training costs, waivers of foreign-ownership restrictions, and streamlined work permits. And, as have several of the islands, St. Lucia has launched its own computer-training center to make up for its computerless classrooms, and it has lobbied its phone company to lower the rates for high-speed data lines. A year and a half into the effort, Brumbaugh landed the first contract, a commitment by a Delaware-based credit card company to set up an application-processing shop on St. Vincent that would employ 100 people.

Information processing is not completely new to the region. In the Western Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica already boast several large operations, including a busy ''Digi-port'' near Montego Bay, Jamaica, that is home to several informatics shops. But the industry was recommended to the smaller and poor Eastern islands by the World Bank only about two years ago, when it became clear that their guaranteed access to British banana markets (one of the perks of membership in the British Commonwealth) wouldn't survive free-trade initiatives such as GATT. And without protective arrangements, the Caribbean's small plantations can't compete with big South American growers. ''Bananas now account for about 22 percent of employment in this country,'' says Mr. Marie. ''It will be much, much lower when the special arrangements expire in 2000. Now is the time to create a new industry here.''

Until recently, St. Lucia had another ''new industry'' in mind to replace lost agricultural jobs: apparel manufacturing. But after building up the sector, the country last year learned just how fickle the global assembly line can be when it began losing those hard-won sewing jobs to Asia. ''In the past, we've tried to sell ourselves as a cheap-labor country,'' says Marie. ''But we're really middle income ....'' Part of the appeal of the English-specific information jobs, he says, is that they probably won't ever bolt for China or Mexico.

In all likelihood, neither informatics nor apparel (nor anything else) will ever be more than supporting players to the Caribbean's economic superstar: tourism. It is growing at 10 percent a year in St. Lucia and recently assumed the top spot in the country's economy. Barring a catastrophe, it will stay there. But tourism usually builds in contingency plans for catastrophes, which is one reason the government is anxious to strengthen other sectors. ''One devastating hurricane could kill the [tourism] industry off for years,'' says Marie.

As Marie prepares to launch the marketing phase of the national effort to lure a new industry to St. Lucia, he hopes that informatics - unlike apparel, unlike tourists - will come to stay. ''They'll love it here,'' he says, spreading his arms. ''They won't want to go back for anything.''

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