Mon, May 13, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba is raising hopes on all sides


Former US president Jimmy Carter, who has worked to improve US relations with Cuba for more than two decades, will give it another try after his scheduled arrival yesterday at the invitation of Fidel Castro -- the communist leader who has been in power twice that long.

As president from 1977 to 1981, Carter helped re-establish diplomatic missions in both countries and negotiated the release of thousands of political prisoners. He also made it possible for Cuban exiles to visit their relatives on the island and, for a short time, for other Americans to travel to Cuba freely.

But a US trade embargo is still in place after four decades and relations are as chilly as they've ever been.

Carter will be the first US president -- in or out of office -- to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution that put Castro in power. Calvin Coolidge was the last American head of state to come, in 1928.

Wayne Smith, the chief US diplomat to Havana during the Carter administration, said he didn't expect "any miracles." But he said "Carter cannot achieve less than [US President George W.] Bush has, which has been zero."

The Bush administration has hardened the US stance toward Havana, promising not to ease trade sanctions until Cuba holds free elections and releases political prisoners.

Although Carter has emphasized this is a private visit and he will not be negotiating with the Cuban government, people on all sides of the debate are pressuring him to push their agendas.

The White House and Cuban exiles want Carter, who has made a post-presidential career out of monitoring elections in developing democracies, to talk bluntly with his host about human rights and democracy.

"This would be very helpful in sending that signal that freedom and democracy are important in Cuba," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Exile groups also hope Carter will bring up Project Varela, a campaign by Cuban activists to force a referendum asking voters if they want liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to start their own businesses. The organizers delivered their petition signatures to the legislature Friday.

Meanwhile, Cuban officials and a growing number of Americans who oppose US sanctions hope Carter will publicly condemn the trade embargo.

"To emphasize dialogue and engagement is the best means to advance US interests in Cuba and to promote political and economic reform on the island -- something the 40-year-old embargo has utterly failed to achieve," said Sally Grooms Cowal, a former US diplomat who is president of the Cuba Policy Foundation.

Carter has long been on record as opposing the embargo. Earlier this year, he said increasing trade and visits by Americans to Cuba could spread understanding of the advantages of freedom.

Castro and Carter will have plenty of time to talk, especially during two dinners that Castro has planned.

Carter is traveling with his wife, Rosalynn, and a small group of staff from the couple's nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta.

They will tour renovation projects in historic Old Havana, an agricultural cooperative, a medical research center and several schools. Carter is to make a live televised address to the Cuban people tomorrow.

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