"We cruised the Caribbean last year. We hit Venezuela, Grenada, Martinique, Curacao . . ." said McKever Rose, reflecting on his 12-day vacation voyage through clear Caribbean seas and tropical island ports.

"In Grenada, the ship was too big to come into the harbor," said Rose, "so the young people swam out to us and asked you to throw money to them. They said 'You're so fortunate to be an American.' And they're right."

Rose, a Washington management analyst from Prince George's County, and his wife, Gloria, dressed in stark white evening clothes, slapped their hands on the banquet table to the reggae beat of the Royal Buccaneers, a New York bank playing at the Washington Hilton for Saturday night's Caribbean Ball.

Sponsored by the local Caribbean American Intercultural Organization (CAIO), the ball was the culmination of Caribbean Independence Week. And the 400 guests, wearing tropical whites and trading snatches of information about the latest hurricane, had a choice of either Jamaican or Barbadian rum. a

"You know, I would rather be a middle-class black in America than a middle-class white from any other country," said Rose. "This is what travel has taught me."

During the week-long festival of calypso music, dancing and a cricket match at West Potomac Park, Rose, and other Washingtonians familiar with the beaches and high-rise hotels of St. Thomas and St. Croix, joined with island natives now settled here to share their culture. And in the festive ballroom, bathed in an exotic blue light, there was an overriding concern among Americans and Caribbeans for the poverty of the island people, who live side-by-side with opulence.

An expert on the problem, Sir Arthur Lewis, recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on the economics of developing nations, was honored at the ball.

"The islands are desperate for employment," said Lewis, defending tourism. "What one would like to see is a different kind of tourism, like the Spanish or the Swiss, who maintain small boarding houses. The American just goes and spends his money, comes away and doesn't carry the problems of the country back."

The first black Nobel Prize winner in a category other than peace, Lewis, a native of St. Lucia, said he fell into economics by "pure accident" as a student at the University of London. "I went to study business administration but did well enough in economics that I got a scholarship to continue. I asked everybody in St. Lucia what economics was and nobody knew any better than I did.

"The West Indian economy is in a terrible state. But you can't blame the economists, because nobody listens to them anyway," said Lewis, who jokingly pointed to an irony: "It is most interesting that most economists are from Great Britain and the United States. These two countries have the worst economic records of recent years!"

"We are a very small country not so well endowed by the creator," said Ambassador Serge Charles of his native Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, ruled by President for Life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. h

He said the stream of some 25,000 Haitian refugees that have come to the United States in the past six years is the result of economic conditions, not political oppression of the Duvalier regime.

"Because of the proximity to the United States, these fellows [the refugees] are not willing to accept poverty and will cross the ocean to take advantage of the United States," said Charles. "If I was not ambassador, if I didn't have a job, I too would have risked my life to make the trip. There is no persecution; there is no torture. We're not crazy. We know they are poor fellows. They are our people, we care for them."

First on the dance floor were Forrest Carter, a chemist at Naval Research Laboratories, and his wife, Cynthia, a physicist at the National Academy of Science.Chairman of CAIO's cultural center committee, Forrest said he is a great fan of Caribbean culture and has visited the islands many times.

"The Caribbean songmaster will discuss anything -- love, politics, ideology. American ballads are insipid by comparison.

Carter told the story of the discovery of the steel drum during a V. J. Day parade in Trinidad. When one of the marchers broke his bamboo drum, "he picked up a garbage-can lid and realized he could get different notes from it. It's the greatest musical instrument since the piano," said Carter.

Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, which also was honored by CAIO for its lobbying on behalf of African nations, had been in Kingston, Jamaica, Friday as part of a commission investigating the possibility of U.S. intervention in the upcoming Jamaican elections.

"For a long time the United States has treated the Caribbean and Africa alike," he said. "The big problem in the Caribbean, as well as Africa, is economics. These nations are serious about nonalignment. This country has to learn it shouldn't concern itself solely with what the Soviets are doing there."

Val McComie, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, agreed: "The Caribbean is being seen in Cold War ideological terms, and this may detract from the real problems of the Caribbean, which are basic needs -- jobs, social services, housing."

But Melvin Evans, the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, who also received an honorary plaque at the ball, said America should increase foreign aid to the Caribbean to quash Soviet advancement there.

"There's already been one or two coups this year. Generally the area is ripe for socialism," said Evans."It wouldn't take a whole lot of money to help. The United States can't afford to have many more Cubas."

But for Sydney Barnett, founder of the West Indian Social Club Inc. of Hartford, Conn., concern for the economic and political problems of his native Jamaica have been softened by his 33 years in America since he came here as a truck driver during World War II.

Barnett, an employe of the Connecticut Gaming Commission, was more interested in the Hartford Cricket team, which had played that day in New York. "No, we're not the best," he said of the team's standing. "It's like baseball: Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. Right now, we're midway."

Recently divorced, Barnett is entrenched in American life, boasting of his position on the local Republican Township Committee and his title of justice of the peace. "Of course, I like it here," he said. "If I didn't, I would've been gone."

"There's so much opportunity here for a young man who learns the system," said Barnett. "I'm in the system."