Some say the "domino theory" could soon be confirmed all the way from the Bahamas right down the Leeward and Windward islands, including oil-rich Trinidad. With a coup in Grenada, a struggle for power in St. Lucia, unrest in Jamaica, boat people from Haiti and daily refugees from Cuba, the United States has been forced to recognize that there is a serious problem in the Eastern Caribbean.

Many Americans see the "freedom flotilla" from Cuba as proof that the communist model does not work, but several U.S. political strategists have called the Cuban exodus a "sideshow." The strategists believe the real danger for the United States stems from Castro's new drive for influence in the Caribbean, and they may well be right.

Trust in the United States is fading fast in the Caribbean. In the past, a U.S. policy of benign neglect has strengthened the appeal of leftists throughout the islands. Caribbeans nationals, struggling against a colonial past and an improverished present, want jobs and a decent life.

In our efforts to restore trust, the United States' advantage is that we have more to give in the way of economic and technical assistance than Cuba does. Cuba's advantage, however, is that it has demonstrated an ability to move quickly and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Although Cuba no longer has the second-highest per-capita income in the Latin American region (it is now seventh), has succeeded in eliminating abject proverty by raising the income level of the poorest-of-the-poor. It is this fact that is so attractive to developing Caribbean nations. But even those countries that have expressed admiratiom for this aspect of the Cuban model have remained open to trade and assistance from the United States. Clearly, our success in the Eastern Caribbean will depend in large part on our ability to deliver opportunities as quickly as Cuba can.

It is my opinion, based on numerous visits and conversations with Caribbean nationals, that small U.S. businesses -- particularly minority businesses -- could play a pivotal role in strengthening the economies of the developing Caribbean nations. Small businesses provides nearly half the GNP and more than half the jobs in the developed countries. By linking together entrepreneurs from the developed and developing countries and utilizing their respective talents to launch new cooperate business ventures, the small-business sector of the developing nations would be strengthened, and their economies could become increasingly self-sufficient.

A minority organization can have a significant impact on a developing economy, as evidenced by a program sponsored by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Witherspoon Development Corporation in New York. (Witherspoon is the only minority-controlled organization funded to make loans in the Caribbean.)

Although OPIC unfortunately does not have a specific minority program, it has succeeded nevertheless in making some excellent beginners in reaching out to minority entrepreneurs. Last year, OPIC provided a loan to the Witherspoon Development Corporation to make loans to minority entrepreneurs interested in doing business in the Caribbean. For example:

Two black American women, on vaction in Antigua, decided they would like to live and work there. Using their savings, they purchased land obtained a goverment permit to operate a tourist-cottage business. They joined forces with an Antiguan lawyer, sold stock to 30 people (both Caribbean and American) for additional equity, and they were in business. Witherspoon, impressed by the stability of their operation, loaned them $50,000 to expand their business. t

A Haitian-born U.S. citizen, in the midst of a successful career in top management, decided he wanted to return to his native land to share his expertise and to stimulate the economy there. What do Haitians import that could just as easily be produced n Haiti, he wondered. After talking with an umbrella wholesaler on the mainland, he decided an umbrella factory would be a welcome and profitable venture. His savings amounted to 30 to 40 percent of the total project cost; Withspoon provided the rest. The factory now employs 30 Haitian nationals.

Project such as these could be multipied hundreds of thousands of times on islands throughout the Caribbean. And if another minority company -- Univox -- succeeds in marketing its product in the Caribbean, entire new islands could be made habitable and profitable.

Univox manufactures a portable water-purification system that is capable of desalinating sea water and making brackish water drinkable. (Located in Los Angeles on the fringes of Watts, Univox currently has a contract to manufacture these systems for the U.S. Army.) Imagine the role Univox could play in the transfer of this new technology to Caribbean islands that are now uninhabitable because of lack of water for drinking and irrigation. But first, companies like Univox are going to need help from organizations such as Witherspoon.

By demonstrating the free-enterprise system, Witherspoon has succeed in making new friends for the United States by enhancing local enterprise and entrepreneurship in those countries where new businesses were established and, at the same time, strengthening the U.S. minority businesses that participated. This type of program should be encouraged by our U.S. foreign policy. Witherspoon should not be the only minority institution aggressively making overseas business loans to minority firms.

What is occurrng in the Caribbean in regard to free enterprise, unemployment and underemployment is also true of minority economic development here in the United States. Stmulating minority business here by promoting exporting and co-venturing in the Caribbean will serve two purposes: employment opportunities will increase in both the United States and the Caribbean, and innercity communities, where most minority businesses exist, will be revitalized. Through coventuring, both U.S. minority and Caribbean entrepreneurs will expand their businesses to include international as well as domestic markets.

The climate is right, both in the United States and in the Caribbean, for people-to-people diplomacy. Black Americans, because they share a common heritage and common goals with Eastern Caribbean nationals are uniquely qualified to provide the kind of grass-roots assistance and involvement that are so desperately needed.

What black Americans have in common with Eastern Caribbean nationals are a history of bondage and poverty and a determination to obtain for themselves jobs, education and a decent standard of living. In societies that value democratic, free-enterprise principles, the only way to meet these goals is by strengthening the free-enterprise system.

Black American business persons are in a unique position to help Caribbean entrepreneurs build and expand the private sector in their countries. Certainly they are able to relate sensitively to the frustrations that hamper Caribbean businesses -- most notably, the lack of development capital and technical assistance.

Americans rarely recognize the true nature of the U.S.-Caribbean relationship. The United States exports some $2 billion worth of U.S. products to the Caribbean each year; our direct private investment in the area is estimated at $4.3 billion. Half our oil imports travel through Caribbean sea lanes, and much of that oil is processed at Caribbean refineries. In fact, the Caribbean region is crucial to U.S. interests.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union, through Cuba (and indirectly through Grenada) is becoming firmly entrenched in the Caribbean. Clearly, it is not in our national interest to give the Soviet Union a clear field. Yet the United States has failed to identify clearly its national interest in the region or to devise policies to protect American interests.