IN WORKING to stabilize the Caribbean basin, is

the administration inadvertently destabilizing Puerto Rico? This is the foreboding of Puerto Ricans close to the mainland Democratic Party. They feel that the tariff and tax privileges the administration now proposes to extend to the whole region will simply cancel out the advantage those privileges--the heart of "Operation Bootstrap"--have conferred on the commonwealth. The governor and other Puerto Ricans close to Ronald Reagan reply that the president's Caribbean Basin Initiative does protect the island, but they are awfully jittery about it.

Already, Puerto Rico, with a per capita income half that of the poorest state and an economy sadly dependent on federal transfer payments, was the American jurisdiction most hurt by federal budget cuts. With the Initiative, the hurt deepens. Puerto Rico pays a special price for the Reagan domestic policy and a special price for the Reagan foreign policy. These are American citizens, and it's not fair.

The critics argue that the island, while more advanced than most intended beneficiaries of the Caribbean Initiative, is still a developing country and needs to be relieved of the burdens that an undifferentiating federal law now imposes. Let Puerto Rico control imports while its industry grows, the island's house proposes; let the island avoid more expensive American shipping, and so on.

There are some sensible ideas here. The trouble is, many of them cut across the administration's guiding policy--to put the island on a statehood course or, in the shorter run, to treat it within the context of the "new federalism." This tilts the administration against proposals whose secondary effect is to strengthen the island's commonwealth status and, not incidentally, the Democrats.

The most likely result of this confrontation on an economic program is the same stalemate that has curdled the status debate in recent years. A break is essential, and we think we know what it should be. The administration should grant that its first responsibility is not to one status, statehood, but to the people. That means living with commonwealth, because it exists and is flexible, and consulting with all political elements to agree on the best development ideas regardless of their implication for the ill-starred status debate. After all, even Mr. Reagan's political opponents basically accept his fundamental economic insight--that the curse of welfarism on the island must be licked. If the president could turn from the form of status to the substance of development, he might yet lead the turnaround the island desperately needs.$