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Cuba: Former U.S. President Carter Begins Historic Trip

  • Kathleen Moore

Jimmy Carter is visiting Cuba, the first visit by a U.S. president -- in or out of office -- since 1928. Cuban leader Fidel Castro has promised Carter free rein to go anywhere and to speak to anyone during his six-day trip. His visit comes after allegations last week by U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton that Cuba is seeking to develop biological weapons.

Prague, 13 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's not often that "The Star-Spangled Banner," the U.S. national anthem, is played at Havana's International Airport. But then it's not often that a former U.S. president visits Cuba.

Jimmy Carter began his trip to Cuba yesterday, the first visit to the communist island by a former or serving American head of state in more than 70 years. Carter finally accepted invitations that had been issued by Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In his welcoming speech, Castro disputed those who see a political motive in Carter's visit: "There might be those who think that our invitation for you to visit our country is a shrewd maneuver with a mean political purpose." But Castro said the invitation to Carter had been made in "deserved recognition" of the former president's attitude toward Cuba while president and his subsequent efforts to bring peace and understanding to all peoples.

During his four years as president from 1977 to 1981, Carter opened "interest sections," similar to diplomatic missions, in Havana and Washington and relaxed restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.

Carter had this to say at the beginning of what the Carter Center, his nonprofit public policy center, bills as a "historic trip": "We come here as friends of the Cuban people, and we hope to meet many Cubans from all walks of life."

Carter and his delegation were given a special license by the U.S. Treasury to visit Cuba, which has been off-limits as a tourist destination for ordinary Americans since the 1960s.

Aside from meeting Castro and other top officials during his six-day trip, Carter is scheduled to visit an AIDS sanatorium and a school for disabled children. He will also hold a full day of meetings with religious leaders and human rights activists.

One of the focal points will be a visit to Havana University tomorrow, where he is scheduled to deliver a live television address. Today, the former U.S. president is due to visit a biotechnology center on the outskirts of the capital, Havana.

Castro says Carter will have the freedom to go anywhere and to talk to anyone on the island, even if "they do not share our endeavors." Carter is expected to bring up human rights issues, a cause he has championed since leaving office and setting up the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

His visit comes amid sharp exchanges between Havana and Washington. Last week, Otto Reich, the acting U.S. undersecretary of state with responsibility for Latin America, ruled out increasing business ties with Cuba, saying the U.S. "will not throw a lifeline to save a regime that is sinking under the weight of its own historic failures."

That same day, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, named Cuba as one of three states -- the others were Libya and Syria -- seeking to develop biological weapons. Castro angrily denied the charges and challenged the U.S. to show proof.

Antoni Kapcia is director of the U.K.-based Forum for the Study of Cuba. He says that, even though Carter is expected to meet leading Cuban dissidents, his visit is likely to be a public relations triumph for Castro. He points to a recent precedent -- the pope's visit in 1998. "That equally could have rebounded but it didn't, in spite of criticisms made by the pope. It actually was a public relations coup rather than anything else. And in fact the government has actually had a fairly light touch on opposition sectors in Cuba fairly recently, so they don't see too much of a problem with that. They see [criticism of Cuba's human rights record] as a cost. The benefits [of the visit] are enormous."

Kapcia says Carter's visit should produce some short-term benefits in Cuba, such as the release of political opponents. "I'm sure there will be moves in Cuba to show goodwill. I'm sure that, for example, some of the opposition activists currently under detention will be released. I'm sure there will be some sort of easing of pressure on them. Those sorts of moves we can expect because that happens most times when there is a high-profile visit."

But Kapcia says he does not see much prospect for longer-term effects, such as the easing or lifting of the four-decades-long U.S. trade embargo. He says that's because U.S. domestic political considerations -- in particular, two key upcoming events -- are likely to discourage any moves toward improving relations.

In November, U.S. President George W. Bush's brother Jeb is up for re-election as governor of Florida, where the large anti-Castro Cuban-American population is seen as a key voting constituency. Also, later this year or early next year should see official confirmation hearings for Undersecretary of State Reich, a conservative Cuban-American known for his anti-Castro views.