MIAMI — Prime Minister James F. Mitchell of St. Vincent was voicing his skepticism about the Reagan Administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative, a program designed to change the fortunes of needy countries through private investment and trade.
"Two weeks ago, a group of investors from North America came to St. Vincent and expressed a keen interest in investing in a plant to manufacture certain types of supplies," Mitchell said.
"Naturally, one of their questions was whether we did have a good water supply system," he said. "In all fairness, I had to acknowledge that the kinds of supply figures which they had in mind would be far more than we could ever provide at this point."
The investors lost interest, and St. Vincent lost a chance at new jobs for some of its many unemployed workers.
The Caribbean Basin Initiative, or CBI, was begun nearly three years ago with the goal of promoting job-creating investment in the Caribbean and Central America. Its mainspring is duty-free access to the huge U.S. market for a wide range of products through 1995.
But while the opportunities offered by the American market have been welcome, they have failed to spark widespread investment and development in the Caribbean Basin. Mitchell is not the only one who is disappointed.
The CBI's failings and unfulfilled potential were among the main themes of discussion by hundreds of officials and businessmen attending the 10th annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean last week.
As Mitchell observed, poor infrastructure is a major obstacle to the kind of industrial and agricultural growth envisioned by the CBI. "It would be naive to think that we could seriously motivate our private sector or that of the U.S. to exploit these fantastic new opportunities if we do not have a proper road network, good transportation facilities, including airports and seaports," Mitchell told the conference. "Reliable power generation and telecommunication systems have to be also in place."
He complained that U.S. financing for infrastructure development under the CBI has been "less than adequate."
Participants at the conference pointed out other major obstacles to CBI success:
- The developing countries of the region not only lack adequate infrastructure, their limited industrial base and lack of technology hamper their capacity for fast growth. Some of the smallest countries, such as St. Vincent--with 110,000 people--are severely limited in the size of investment they can absorb.
- Although most Caribbean Basin products can enter the U.S. market duty free, key items such as garments and leather goods still must pay duties. And it is in garment making and leather working that many Caribbean countries have the experience and potential for fast expansion.
- While promoting the CBI, the United States has cut imports of sugar, one of the Caribbean Basin's main exports. U.S. sugar imports for 1986 are expected to be down about 70% from the level at the beginning of the 1980s.
- U.S. legislation permits U.S. producers to start proceedings aimed at imposing countervailing duties on imports that they say compete unfairly with their own. This has raised doubts about the reliability of the CBI's duty-free promise.
- The threat of more protectionist bills in Congress, aimed at keeping low-priced imports from eroding American industry's capacity to provide jobs, further dampens confidence in the CBI program.
- In some countries, especially in Central America, social and political conditions do not inspire investor confidence.
- Most Caribbean Basin countries lack domestic capital for new investment. In fact, they export capital to pay for imports, to service their foreign debts and to invest in more profitable or more secure markets.
- Under current world conditions, the flow of foreign investment capital is toward industrialized countries and away from developing ones.
- Caribbean and Central American agencies trying to entice investors from the United States must compete with thousands of similar agencies promoting investment inside the United States.
- Bureaucratic red tape, tax structures and other constraints on private enterprise cause potential investors to shy away from many countries in the region. In some places, for example, it takes six months or more to get a telephone.
Apathy by U.S. Firms
Twenty-one countries, with the notable exceptions of Cuba and Nicaragua, are eligible to participate in the CBI program.
Lawson Calderon of St. Lucia, an investment consultant who headed his country's National Development Corp., said U.S. companies have little interest in the Caribbean.
"They don't know what the Caribbean Basin is," Calderon said in an interview at the Miami conference. "There's a big public relations gap, a big information gap. You know, St. Where? St. Elsewhere."
He said the CBI needs to offer more incentives to spark the interest of American investors. He suggested a tax break for profits brought home from the Caribbean.