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U.S. Pursuit of Traffickers Angers Caribbean Residents

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The fisherman bristled and stepped forward threateningly, the toes of his bare feet curling into the beach sand, as though to attack the bearer of the bad tidings.

“It’s not true! It can’t be true!” he yelled.

The fisherman--an admitted smuggler of liquor, cigarettes and appliances--could not believe that Grenada’s government had signed an agreement allowing U.S. vessels to pursue suspected drug traffickers into the Caribbean nation’s territorial waters.

Washington is seeking similar pursuit rights throughout the Caribbean, and, like the Grenadian fisherman, residents in some countries are shocked that their governments would sacrifice sovereignty and pride.

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On Petite Martinique, the smallest and least developed of Grenada’s three islands, U.S. Marines surveying the site of a future Grenadian coast guard base were met with hostile questions about what they were up to.

It was a far cry from the welcome American troops received when they invaded Grenada in 1983, ending an internal leftist struggle that had led to the executions of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and several Cabinet ministers.

Times have changed since President Reagan charged that Grenada was vulnerable to a takeover by Communist Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union and an economically weakened Cuba diminished the strategic importance of the Caribbean. Annual U.S. aid plummeted from $225 million in 1985 to $26 million a decade later.

Recently, however, the Caribbean has acquired a new significance as a major drug-trafficking route between the cocaine producers of South America and consumers in the United States.

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The Caribbean islands are near-perfect conduits for drug shipments and money laundering, with their numerous unpoliced islets, duty-free ports and thousands of secretive Swiss-style banks.

The region’s leaders warn that the drug trade could become an even more attractive alternative for impoverished islanders if Washington continues to push free-trade policies that they contend hurt their economies.

They say the North American Free Trade Agreement has cut into Caribbean textile exports to the United States and some factories are moving to Mexico, a NAFTA member.

The Clinton administration also wants to end Caribbean banana producers’ special privileges in the European market. That would devastate the Windward Islands, whose banana sales in Europe account for half their foreign earnings.

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In 1983, Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica stood on the White House steps with Reagan to show Caribbean support for the Grenada invasion. Last year, the retired Charles was in Washington warning that if the United States did not change its economic policies in the Caribbean, “it will be extremely difficult for any country to tell people not to go into drugs.”

Against that backdrop, the United States is pushing for agreements that allow U.S. vessels to pursue suspected traffickers into territorial waters--with the permission of local authorities, who are responsible for prosecutions.

Ten Caribbean Basin nations have signed such pacts.

Trinidad says it did so because it has neither money nor equipment to combat drug trafficking.

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But several nations, including Belize and Antigua and Barbuda, say they felt compelled to sign by implied U.S. threats to oppose loans from international institutions.

U.S. officials deny applying undue pressure.

The bigger islands are most jealous of their autonomy. Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, for instance, insisted that “no foreign security force would have a legal jurisdiction to exercise any powers . . . within our jurisdiction.”

By December, however, he was negotiating a pursuit agreement with the United States. Then a State Department narcotics official, Patricia Hall, angered Patterson’s government by saying Jamaica was not doing enough to arrest known traffickers.

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The refusal of Jamaica and Barbados to sign pursuit pacts led to an emergency summit of the 14-member Caribbean Community in December. There, Caribbean leaders said they would try to consolidate the bilateral agreements with the United States into a regional accord.

Caribbean leaders stress they want to cooperate with Washington.

The governor of the British Turks and Caicos Islands got into a row with islanders last year when he said the territory was rife with drug corruption. In 1995, islanders reelected a former chief minister who was convicted in Miami in 1986 on drug-smuggling charges.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, a scandal over a cocaine shipment linked to the murder of the son of the vice premier and the government’s intelligence chief caused the downfall of the government in 1995.

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For the fisherman in Petite Martinique, a new coast guard base and the possibility of capture by U.S. officers could spell the end of a livelihood.

“How will we survive? What will we live off?” he asked.

He admitted most fishermen on Petite Martinique survive by smuggling.

“But not drugs,” he insisted. “Liquor, cigarettes, televisions, things like that.”

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