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Mon, May 13, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Carter's Cuba trip may open up trade

NO SALE For over four decades the US has maintained a trade embargo against the carribean nation. The former US president's visit could help thaw relations

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , HAVANA

In Havana, book vendor David Felipe Calderin Pulido, left, explains Cuban history to Spanish visitor Vanessa Cobos, who is visiting Cuba for the first time Saturday. The visit by former US president Jimmy Carter may be the first step in better trade relations between America and Cuba.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Former President Jimmy Carter arrives in Cuba on Sunday as the most prominent American political figure to venture across the chasm between two nations separated by 145km and 43 years of communist rule.

While no major policy breakthroughs are expected during his five-day visit, which is billed as a private one, many here hope that Carter's presence will advance their efforts for change. The Cuban government would like to see Carter speak out against the US trade embargo. Carter's administration was marked by an easing of American policy toward Cuba.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates hope that Carter will lend support to their campaign for greater political and economic freedoms -- his speech at the University of Havana tomorrow evening is to be broadcast live on state television.

In either case, there are expectations that the visit could signal the start of a dialogue that shifts the focus away from adversarial suspicion toward a more constructive vision of relations between the countries.

"Since the 1960s the only thing I've seen coming from Washington, Miami and Havana is rhetoric," said Bernardo Benes, a Miami banker who helped the Carter administration negotiate the release of 3,600 political prisoners and establish family visits to the island. "I do not see any reason for the status quo to continue. Nobody is gaining anything."

But the fact that Carter is traveling here at Castro's invitation has led others to worry that the former president's visit is merely a ploy by Castro to add some luster to his own image. Last month, a resolution sponsored by Latin American countries censured Cuba at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

The trip has been met with skepticism by some Cuban-Americans, including several lawmakers who tried, unsuccessfully, to have the Bush administration prevent Carter from getting the federal license necessary for traveling to Cuba. The staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, which sent a delegation to brief Carter in Atlanta recently, cautiously supported the trip.

Foundation leaders, excoriated by the Cuban government as part of the "Miami Mafia," suggested they were willing to see the embargo end if Havana allowed free elections.

Joe Garcia, the foundation's executive director, added that Carter's worldwide stature as a human rights advocate brought with it special responsibilities in Cuba.

"The creator of the international standard in human rights is going to meet with the greatest violator of human rights in the hemisphere," Garcia said. "He is a former president and his role has to be significant or it would not be worth risking his legacy."

However, one prominent human rights advocate in the US expressed concern that Carter would not take full advantage of his chance to address the Cuban nation.

"My fear is that the most he would do is make a few references in the abstract about human rights," the advocate said. "That is the most you can expect, as well as a very clear condemnation of the embargo as a unilateral policy."

Chief among the concerns for human rights advocates and dissidents is the fate of the Varela Project, a petition drive for a referendum on greater individual freedoms, amnesty for political prisoners and permission for Cubans to own businesses.

On Friday, its sponsors delivered two boxes to the National Assembly filled with petitions signed by 11,000 people, 1,000 more than the number needed for a referendum, as set out in the Cuban Constitution. It is the biggest peaceful challenge yet to the Cuban government.

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