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Playing Simple Simon in the Caribbean

The foreign affairs bureaucracy in Washington is thrashing about looking for new policies in the Caribbean. A State Department report says that "economic and social instability" in this area is creating "targets of opportunity" for Cuba.

This is seen as a danger to the United States. The greater danger, however, lies in what the US might do to deal with the situation and to prevent the emergence of another Cuba. This is likely to take the form of support of conservative, even repressive, governments. These governments, in turn, will further alienate their people and polarize their countries' politics, thereby ensuring that the successor governments (which will surely come to power) will be further to the left than they might otherwise have been. In all of this, there is a neat self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The instruments of policy now being talked about in Washington to salvage the Caribbean have all been tried. At best, they have simply failed. AT worst, they have contributed to bringing about what they were intended to prevent.

These policy instruments include more economic aid (which naturally will be used more efficiently than in the past), more high-visibility impact projects (which naturally will make a more favorable impact than in the past), military and police assistance to preserve crumbling public order, and even -- if the Senate has its way -- an anti-Castro propaganda offensive.

One problem with these several instruments is that they tend to cancel each other out, and the people who favor one are likely to oppose another.

Take economic assistance, for example.. Pass over, for the sake of argument, the fact that the historical record inspires little confidence in the ability of the US government to administer it successfully. Congressional opponents, particularly conservatives, are likely to delay it for so long and to hedge it with so many restrictions as to ensure its failure, another self-fulfilling prophecy which conservatives will seize as an excuse for saying, "I told you so."

This has not quite happened in Nicaragua yet, but the essential ingredients are in place. The Nicaraguan story carries another lesson as well. A principal justification of aid was that the US ought to match the Cubans who were sending doctors and teachers.

There are two things seriously wrong with this justification. The fact that Cuba is doing something is a very poor reason for the United States to do it. In the second place, the US is singularly ill-equipped to compete with Cuban doctors and teachers in Nicaragua.Where in the US are you going to find significant numbers of Spanish-speaking doctors and teachers who are culturally sensitive to Nicaragua and who are willing to drop whatever they are doing to go to work there? (Maybe the Cuban exile community provides a source. If so, it would be rather fun to see what might happen.)

The people in the United States who delay and restrict economic aid are generally more enthusiastic about military and police assistance. The US had a program of helping foreign police forces once (it was called public safety), and it identified the US so closely with malodorous regimes in Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, and elsewhere that Congress abolished it.

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Not only is there talk of reviving the program; the Carter administration has forged ahead to request $6 million in military assistance for El Salvador. Inasmuch as the Salvadoran military is principally responsible for the deterioration in public order in the first place, this has to rank high on anybody's list of the ten most inappropriate responses to problems of foreign policy.

Finally the Senate -- inspired by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina -- has voted to require that in broadcasting to Cuba, the Voice of America identify itself as Radio Free Cuba. Something similar was done from Swan Island in preparation for the Bay of Pigs, but at least in that case an effort was made to keep the US role secret. Over the last several years, a great deal of effort has gone into transforming the Voice of America from propaganda to news, thereby enhancing its credibility. This would be lost if the Senate action stands.

The Cuba syndrome is one of the enduring puzzles of US foreign policy. The Castro regime has been in power now for 21 years. In all that time, no other country of the Caribbean has seen fit to follow its example. The White House, the State Department, and the Senate would all benefit from a calm reexamination of policy.