WASHINGTON -- Once today's two problems in the Caribbean -- Cuba and Haiti -- are solved, the era of U.S. military and covert intervention in its own back yard will likely end, according to experts inside and outside the administration.
The question is what will replace it: a period of peaceful partnership between the world's richest nation and some of its poorest countries in the Caribbean and Central America? Or a superpower's benign neglect of a region that is a strategic and economic backwater?
For the past three decades, the containment of Fidel Castro and communism has kept U.S. administrations engaged in a region that otherwise might have attracted little official attention.
The socialist system that Mr. Castro, now 68, embraced and that the Kremlin helped finance has imploded. One way or the other, Cuba is about to change, either violently or by gradual political and economic reform, either with President Castro or without him.
In Haiti, the days of the generals appear numbered. U.S. and Caribbean troops are training for an invasion that seems imminent -- unless Haiti's military dictators decide first to take their money and run.
"You have the two regimes that haven't gotten on the right side of history, and both of them are on the edge of change," said Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman. "You can sense that, feel that. It rings in an era of enormous opportunity in the region."
Harriet C. Babbitt, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, said: "The kind of things that have caused the United States to decide it was a good idea to intervene militarily are very unlikely to be relevant with democratic governments. We are seeing an end to that era if the current trend continues, which we believe it will.
"As our president and others have said, democracies are much less likely to make war with one another, and much more likely to respect human rights and much more likely to have orderly mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts."
Cuba and Haiti apart, a tour of the regional horizon today reveals no other countries in the Caribbean or Central America in which the sort of U.S. intervention that occurred, overtly or covertly, in recent years in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Grenada, El Salvador and Panama might be needed.
Over the years, U.S. military intervention has been twinned with efforts to spur economic growth and democratic reforms in the region. But the moves to enhance trade and reduce regulations have had only limited success.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. aid to Latin America -- most of it earmarked for Central America -- has been cut to half its former size, from $1.3 billion in 1989 to a fiscal 1995 request for $623 million, with the balance diverted to supporting democracy in the former Soviet Union.
Administration officials say that the aid decline reflects not an eastward shift of priorities but the transition of many Central American and Caribbean countries from being international welfare cases to being more self-sufficient, if struggling, economies. While some countries have advanced, others remain mired in an economic mess. One in three of the 30 million Central Americans lives in poverty.
Democracy in many of the countries is marginal. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the military forces remain ominously strong. In the Dominican Republic, the May 16 re-election of 87-year-old President Joaquin Balaguer to his seventh term by a margin of less than 1 percentage point of the vote remains clouded by allegations of fraud.
But nowhere is U.S. interest so threatened or is there such an affront to democracy that direct intervention is likely. Should a crisis arise, the response is likely to come from the Organization of American States -- a hemispheric group committed to cooperation -- rather than unilaterally from the United States.
The administration's approach to the new nonintervention era will be outlined by President Clinton at a summit meeting with Latin American leaders in Miami in December. The main items on the agenda -- democratic reforms, free trade, sustainable economic development, hemispheric security, drug interdiction -- point the direction in which the winds of change are blowing through the hemisphere.
"I think we are definitely looking at a new era," said Jane Thery, an expert with the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We are looking at shifting from focusing 80 percent of our time on Central America and Cuba to working much more closely with the countries . . . on major trade issues and Western Hemisphere-wide agreements on issues like the environment."
A central thrust of the administration's approach will be the extension throughout the hemisphere of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the United States, Canada, and Mexico in a common market.
Administration-supported legislation to ease the transition of Caribbean and Central American nations toward free trade is before a Senate-House conference committee. The measure is expected to be approved after Congress returns later this month.
In another sign of the administration's interest in the region, the United States lobbied for the appointment of Cesar Gaviria of Colombia over Bernd Niehaus of Costa Rica to head the Organization of American States, believing that he would shake the organization out of its semicomatose condition and more actively shape regional policies.
"The United States had never played as a serious factor in the OAS," said a senior State Department official. "The reason we did this time is because the region is of growing importance to the United States, and because there are opportunities for hemispheric leadership that are unprecedented given this direction in history.
"I think the area will become much larger in our foreign policy strategy. It doesn't rank with Asia and Europe when we think of great power relationships, when we think of the big picture. But there is some possibility of change there."
But Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, is skeptical about the prospect of a major change in U.S. regional policy, saying: "Central America always has been a peripheral area for United States policy-makers. As for the Caribbean, there has been almost no interest in that at all. I don't anticipate these areas moving to the front and center of U.S. concern. . . .
"The main thing they could provide the United States was not to become communist or not allow themselves to be influenced by Castro."
Key to regional stability
U.S. policy toward Cuba is the key to regional stability, according to Edgar J. Dosman, executive director of the Canadian Foundation of the Americas, a hemispheric think tank based in Ottawa, Ontario.
"What is happening in Cuba is irresistible change, a process that is out of control, even of the Castro government," said Mr. Dosman, who recently visited Cuba.
Calling for an easing of the 1962 U.S. economic embargo on Cuba to promote change, he said: "If the United States can use this occasion to assist Cuba in reintegration [into the hemisphere], then Cuba can begin to play a constructive role. Cuba is the critical mass for the emergence of stability in the broader Caribbean."
The Clinton administration is maintaining the embargo, trying to persuade Mr. Castro to introduce the sort of democratic and free-market reforms that would justify easing the pressure on him.
This is a mid-course between the demands of hard-line anti-Castroites for an all-out naval blockade to accelerate the regime's downfall and of liberals for lifting the embargo in the belief that the free flow of capitalist ideas and goods is the best way to usher in reforms.
In an analysis of the options, published last week and titled "Storm Warnings for Cuba," the Rand Corporation's National Defense Research Institute, a public policy think tank, endorsed maintaining the embargo on all goods except medicine and humanitarian aid and channels of communications. It urged Mr. Clinton to prepare a dual-track policy, enabling him to respond to either violent or peaceful change in Cuba -- the alternatives facing Mr. Castro.
The analysis, by Edward Gonzalez and David Ronfeldt, concluded: "Castro and Cuba may march to their own drummer almost regardless of what the United States does."