Seeking strength through unity, including their renewed ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro, leaders from 16 Caribbean nations searched for ways Friday to bolster their struggling economies.

At issue in the two-day Santo Domingo summit is how small Caribbean nations can protect themselves from being swamped as the hemisphere moves forward with negotiations to create a free trade zone from Canada to Argentina.One step will be Saturday's signing of a trade pact between the Caribbean Community and the Dominican Republic. Another issue is Cuba.

The 15-member Caribbean Community has backed the communist nation's request to join the Lome Convention, which grants $18 billion worth of preferential trade tariffs and aid from the European Union to 71 former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

They hope that Castro's eloquent arguments about the danger that global trade poses to small-island economies will add muscle to their negotiations with the European Union on a new Lome pact in 2000.