Caribbean nightmare

June 28, 1994|By Don Bohning

WHEN BERNARDO Vega, author, historian and former governor of the Dominican Republic's Central Bank, suggested it in December 1992, it struck many participants at a Washington conference on Haiti as a bit of hyperbole.

Eighteen months later, as Mr. Vega foresaw, the three major nations occupying the two largest islands of the Caribbean are rapidly becoming for the Clinton administration what Nicaragua and El Salvador were for the Reagan and Bush administrations: intractable foreign policy problems.

Haiti already is a political conundrum with indications that Washington is inexorably moving toward military action.

In the neighboring Dominican Republic, sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, a disputed election may give aging Joaquin Balaguer a seventh term as president and perhaps spark an explosion.

In Cuba, across the Windward Passage from Hispaniola's western tip, Fidel Castro presides over a society in economic and political disintegration. The question now is not whether, but when and how, the end arrives for more than three decades of Castro-communist rule.

At worst, Mr. Clinton could be confronted with three full-blown crises on our doorstep as he hosts hemisphere heads of state at a December summit in Miami.

Even if Mr. Clinton is spared simultaneous Caribbean crises by the time of the summit, it is virtually certain that Haiti and Cuba will be sources of friction among summit participants.

In the case of Haiti, that will be particularly true if Washington resorts to unilateral military intervention. Most observers doubt such a move -- while not well-received by many Latin American countries -- would disrupt the summit.

Cuba -- while not expected to be on the formal agenda and the only hemisphere country not to be officially invited -- is sure to be an underlying summit issue. Pressure is building for an end to the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of the island from Canada, the English-speaking Caribbean, Latin America and within the United States itself.

Of the three countries, the least attention has been paid the Dominican Republic. But Caribbean specialists are nearly unanimous in their belief that it is on the brink of serious upheaval.

Mr. Balaguer, 87 years old and blind, may or may not have won a seventh presidential term in May 16 elections marred by widespread irregularities and accusations of fraud. The country's electoral board has not yet declared an official winner, although unofficial results gave Mr. Balaguer a narrow edge.

The Clinton administration has come under fire in some quarters for its failure to apply more pressure on the Balaguer government to ensure an honest election outcome. There is a widespread perception that Washington's muted response to the controversial election process is in return for that government's crackdown on extensive border violations of the international embargo against Haiti's de facto military government.

No matter how the election controversy is eventually resolved, the seeds of instability leading to crisis exist, further complicated by the situation in Haiti.

Don Bohning is the Miami Herald's Latin America editor.

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