BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — President Clinton met Saturday with 15 Caribbean leaders in the first summit of its kind and agreed to work toward closer relations in trade and better cooperation in anti-drug efforts.
Addressing a news conference on a sunny lawn, Clinton stressed to his "fellow Caribbean leaders" that as the United States works to create a free-trade zone throughout the hemisphere, he intends to ensure that the changes are fair to their countries.
He also pledged to improve bilateral trade with their nations and provide assistance as they diversify their economies, arguing that "strong economies can better resist the pressures of organized crime--drug pushers, the gun runners, the alien smugglers, the criminal gangs."
Although the meeting was short on tangible developments and measurable commitments, the Caribbean leaders said that Clinton's attendance for the first time at one of their summits was important evidence of his goodwill toward the region.
The meeting was convened at a time when the Caribbean nations are up in arms over a trade action that the United States is pursuing--with Mexico and three Central American nations--that they fear will eliminate the preferential access their bananas have had to European Union markets.
"In the closest of families, difficulties are bound to arise from time to time," said P. J. Patterson, the Jamaican prime minister and chairman of the Caribbean Community, the association of Caribbean states. "For those relationships to endure, it is essential that they must have the capacity from time to time to meet within the bosom of the family and sort out whatever difficulties may have arisen. Today is one such occasion."
The president, on the last stop of his tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, tried to assuage their concerns, stressing that the U.S. effort is not aimed at disrupting their banana sales. But the Caribbean nations stressed that the banana issue is serious.
"For many of our countries, bananas is to us what cars are to Detroit," Patterson said. He said he was quoting Prime Minister Vaughn Lewis of St. Lucia.
Although they reached no decision on the banana dispute, they agreed to work toward mutually satisfactory marketing arrangements for Caribbean bananas.
The Caribbean leaders also appeared ready to go to the mat with Clinton over the status of the one Caribbean nation that was conspicuously absent from the summit--Cuba.
"We would like to see steps taken that would integrate Cuba fully, not only in the Caribbean family, but into the hemispheric family of nations," Patterson said.
The United States has continued its Cold War strategy of isolating Cuba--economically and politically--in order to press for democratic change.
On the issue of immigration, Clinton addressed concerns of regional leaders that under the new U.S. immigration law, the United States has fueled crime in their countries by deporting dangerous people to their homelands without warning local officials.
"I do not believe it is right for the United States to send people back to their native lands who have been in our criminal justice system without appropriate advance warning and notice," Clinton said.
Patterson said the issue is "acute" in the Caribbean because of cases in which people were deported after living most of their lives in the United States.
During a summit luncheon, Clinton urged St. Vincent Prime Minister James Mitchell to make sure "full due process" is afforded a West Virginia couple charged with murder and jailed in conditions the family calls intolerable.
James and Pennella Fletcher were sailing in St. Vincent when they were charged with the shooting death of water-taxi driver Jerome Joseph, 30. Relatives say the couple is being held on flimsy evidence and claim the government won't look for local suspects because tourists might be scared away.
The president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to relax in Barbados before returning to Washington on Monday.