When the Caribbean American Intercultural Organization was formed in 1958 by a handful of students at Howard University, the Caribbean was made up mostly of French and English colonies that held only an ill-defined hope of becoming independent someday.

Since 1962, however, no fewer than 12 countries have taken the bold step towards autonomy, and the Washington-based CAIO, which promotes independence and improved relationships between island residents and Americans, has grown into the largest, most influential Caribbean-oriented group in the nation.

At a celebration of Caribbean independence held Saturday night at the Washington Hilton Hotel, attended by more than 1,000 persons, CAIO president Beatrice Reed saluted the island countries -- especially Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, which in 1962 became the first two English-speaking countries to achieve independence.

West Indians are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the city -- from 600 in 1960 to over 10,000 today -- and have become a potent cultural and entrepreneurial force in Washington. Most have retained strong ties with their homelands, making regular visits to the Caribbean and joining the efforts of groups like CAIO.

Dignitaries present at the event included ambassadors to the United States from all but a few Caribbean countries as well as ambassadors from several West African nations.

With candidates Marion Barry and Arrington Dixon ardently working the tables for potential votes, and with Caribbean entertainers on stage, the occasion had the atmosphere of a bona fide independence celebration. But conversation quickly turned to sober evaluation of what has happened in the Caribbean during the past two decades.

"The Caribbean today is as dependent, if not more so, than it was 20 years ago," said Val T. McComie, an Organization of American States official who hails from Barbados. "The great challenge to the whole Caribbean is to recognize that we cannot survive individually but only as an integrated region."

His views were reflected by Leo Edwards, a past president of CAIO and a respected elder in the growing West Indian community here.

"What is still lacking is psychological independence," said Edwards, originally from Jamaica. "What we have done is transferred dependence from England to the United States. At present, Caribbean leaders are falling all over themselves for President Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative, which will offer 14 countries only $350 million. That's barely enough to buy one airplane."

A strong agricultural program could help offset the devastating rise in oil prices, Edwards said. However, he said, agricultural efforts suffer "because the farm is still viewed by many as a symbol of slavery."

Just as it was generally agreed that a question mark looms over the economic future of many of the islands -- except perhaps Trinidad, which is an oil exporter -- there was also agreement that in the area of culture and arts the Caribbean has moved forward by leaps and bounds.

Among the honorees at the Saturday night affair were the late Bob Marley, who made reggae music an international cultural force, and Louise Bennett, a Jamaican folklore and dialect poetress.

"We have a saying, 'Teck kin-teet keiba heart-burn,' " said Bennett, a hearty 63-year-old who has appeared in such Caribbean hit movies as "Calypso" and "High Wind in Jamaica." "It means, 'Take a smile to cover the sorrow,' " she said. "When everything else is going wrong, people turn to their traditional culture," said Bennett.

"For years when I was growing up in the Caribbean, there was a group of elite who thought anything black was bad. Only European classics were considered culture. But the people never stopped singing, the people never stopped dancing and the drums never stopped beating."