On an unannounced visit here last January, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert J. Schweitzer, a deputy assistant defense secretary in charge of internantional plans and strategy, told Dominican reporters that he had come to fortify relations with this neighbor country and see what the United States could do to help it confront the "communist threat" in the Caribbean.

"The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the communist threat in the Caribbean and Central America are two things that go together," Schweitzer reportedly said in an airport arrival statement. He also said, according to stories appearing on the front pages of Dominican newspapers the next day, that the United States was prepared to discuss the situation "as equals" with the local military.

While Schweitzer's statement caused a minor flap among political groups in this island nation, provoking complaints of interference, insult and efforts to incite paranoia, they were greatly appreciated by the Dominican military, which long has felt that the United States was blind to the threat of Cuban expansionism in the region.

According to informed sources sympathetic to that view, the Dominican armed forces have been largely disappointed with U.S. followup to President Carter's Oct. 1, 1979 speech promising that the United States would help any nation in the Caribbean in meeting threats from the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The speech was in response to the U.S. discovery that a Soviet combat brigade had been stationed in Cuba and was carrying out manuves. In addition to increasing levels of military assistance, Carter pledged to establish a "permanent, full-time Caribbean joint task force headquarters" in Key West, Fla.; expand U.S. military maneuvers to be conducted "regularly, from now on," in the region; and "increase our economic assistance . . . to insure the ability of troubled people to resist social turmoil and possible communist domination."

By the time the Soviet brigade became an issue, the March 1979 coup in Grenada -- followed by the overthrow of the Anatasio Somoza government in Nicaragua and the development of close ties between Cuba and new governments in both those countries -- already had set Washington on edge. n

Carter's Oct. 1 speech served to officially recognize what Defense Secretary Harold Brown, in testimony last January before the House Armed Services Committee, called Cuba's "willingness to exploit the forces of change in the Caribbean for its own ends."

Those who question this assessment note that, with the exception of Grenada and Jamaica -- both of whose governments invited Cuban participation in varying degrees -- Cuba has little connection with the islands of the Caribbean. They maintain that Fidel Castro's drive in the region is primarily a diplomatic and economic one, consisting of efforts to make friends with countries that previously had snubbed him.

"I would not deny that Cuba wants more friends in the region, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley said in a recent interview. "Nor would I deny that the United States wants to be friends, or that Jamaica wants to be friends, or Mexico. Yet you say it if it were some sort of crime."

Since the Brown statement, the administration has somewhat altered its public assessment of the Cuban threat and of what the United State should do about it.

"We have a concern, yes, about Cuba's threatening role in the Caribbean," Carter told reporters last April. "But our overriding interest is not to respond to threats of this kind. Our overriding interest must be the wellbeing, the unselfish relaionship" among the countries of the region.

The U.S. view on whether Cuba and the Soviet Union poses a military threat in the Caribbean that ought to be met with a military response varies depending on which administration official is asked, and when. In many instances, administration and defense officials note that the primary problem in the Caribbean is an economic one, and that high umemployment and falling gross national product will lead to destabilization long before Cuba imposes it.

But the military measures Carter set in motion last October remain a prinicipal focus of U.S. activity in the area, something that pleases some governments in the region but dismays others. The unhappy ones believe the United States is promoting the militarization of a region that its own resident governments have declared a "zone of peace."

While economic aid to the Caribbean has remained fairly static in the past year, the administration has proposed increases in military credits that are substantial for the small island nations of the eastern Caribbean. They include a $5 million loan to Barbados for fiscal 1981 in the first U.S. military assistance program in that country. Training funds have been proposed for the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent, although some of the smaller islands maintain only police forces that are ineligible for assistance under current U.S. law.

At the same time, a number of joint U.S. military exercises have been conducted in the Caribbean, including the Oct. 17 amphibious landing of 2,000 Marines at Guantanamo naval base on Cuba's southeastern tip and maneuvers in August off the naval facility at Vieques, Puerto Rico. U.S. naval vessels, including the Nassau and the Manley, have shown the flag throughout the region, with more than two dozen port calls in the eastern Caribbean since the beginning of this year.

The Dominican Republic, which maintains the largest military force in the Caribbean after Cuba and is the most friendly to the United States, appears to approve of U.S. measures taken so far, but would like to see an increas in the $451 million the administration has requested for military assistance there in 1981.

Defense Department representatives note that the Dominican Republic's military "doesn't want F4 Phantoms or anything like that," but would like to upgrade its arsenal and equipment. "They're very preoccupied with what's happening around them in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Grenada," one defense official said. "They feel themselves in the center of all these problems, and the United States doesn't do much to help them. They wonder are we going to run out on them like we ran out on Somoza?"

To address these concerns in part, the Pentagon last summer sent a U.S. military team here to conduct a "force study" in which the immediate and long-term needs of the Dominican Republic's armed forces were to be assessed.

Both the Dominican Republic and neighboring Haiti lie close to vital channels that pass through the island chain, providing access to the Panama Canal and U.S. ports that receive half of the United States' oil imports. cHaiti, too, would like more U.S. military assistance than the $300 million in sales credits and $199 million in training proposed for 1981.

But then, a Haitian diplomat noted, his impoverished country "would take more of anything" the United States watned to offer.

The enthusiasm for U.S. military aid is somewhat less among the English-speaking islands of the eastern Caribbean, where Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. David C. Jones said in congressional testimony this year that "the most pressing challenges to U.S. interests in Latin America [including] terrorism, insurgency, and the possible establishment of communist governments" are particularly likely to be promoted by Cuba.

There have been reports that the United States hopes to turn the island of Barbados, perhaps the closest U.S. ally in that region, into a sort of "Iran of the Caribbean." Barbados maintains the area, and many within the Pentagon and Carter administration would like to see it as the center of a regional defense force.

But Barbados so far has balked.

"Let me read you something," a senior Barbadian Foreign Ministry official said in a recent interview as he picked up a copy of an international foreign policy magazine. "'The shah's overthrow,'" he quoted, "'showed that the West does not necessarily do its friends in the Third World a service by embracing them in public even when it is sure they are friends.'"

"We don't want to be a pivot for U.S. policy," he said. "We have refused to be part of any regional security."

To be the "Iran of the Caribbean is perhaps a very flattering designation for Barbados. But I don't think Barbados wants to play the role of cat's paw for any nation. We stand up for our own perspective, not because it is how the United States or Russia or Cuba feels, but because it's how we feel."

Barbados is not opposed to using U.S. aid money to purchase $5 million worth of ships for its own sea rescue operation, the official said. But "that $5 million is expensive money," with terms considered so unfavorable that Barbados is considereing buying its ships from Europe instead.

"We told the United States we would like assistance," he said with implied scorn, "and that is what they come up with."

While this official emphasized that his government is "anticommunist," he said that it so far has been able to deal with the radical regime of nearby Grenada. As for Cuba, he said, "we tend to deal with it the way the Canadians do," maintaining loose diplomatic and trade ties and steering clear of ideological questions.

"Look, if we see the Soviet Union with a military interest in the Caribbean, we assume that it is not a friendly interest.

"I begin with the assumption that the United States will look after its vital interests, and that the soviet Union and those who believe in that form of government will not reduce their efforts. We agree there is a threat, but whether we want a militaristic pose on the part of the United States is something else.

"I don't think a military threat in the Caribbean exists at the moment. It's a battle of minds, and more subtle means exist to combat it."

As for the ship visits, the Barbadian official said, "The United States perceives that by sending us ships, that is protection. I suppose the soldiers and sailors spend money in port, but I prefer more concrete trade favors. If that kind of thing is done in the Caribbean, the need for military might will be less. The primary interest in any such [defense] program is U.S. interest, not Barbados interest."

Jamaican opposition leader Edward Seaga, who is generally supportive of U.S. policy against the Cubans friendly with Prime Ministe Michael Manley, noted that "we need a definite and positive program" in the Caribbean that centers on economic assistance.

But the U.S. followup to expressing its concern has been to send warships," he said. "Nobody in Jamaica knows there are warhsips out there."

Others in the region, including some Western diplomats, believe the potential harm of such increases in U.S. military visibility in the Caribbean may outweigh any good it does.

By moving down to the Caribbean "the kinds of exercises [the United States] used to do in the Atlantic and Pacific" and continuing the large number of port visits by Navy ships, the administration is "running the risk of flooding the area with ships and being perceived as using gunboat diplomacy," said one diplomat.

The United States "talks about respect for ideological pluralism, and then sets up the Caribbean task force," he said.

The task force itself, headquartered in Key West, is purely a command operation without ships or aircraft assigned to it. Its primary function is to monitor intelligence and communications, intercept information, and to coordinate U.S. military exercises in the Caribbean.

The purpose of all this is to send a message to Cuba that the United States is willing to meet any Cuban movement to impose its military will on the islands.

While some of the islands bask in the special protection that the U.S. readiness implies, others are wary of "being used" as pawns in a big power battle.

"If you want to say something to Cuba," the Barbadian official said, "then why don't you say it to them?"