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Cuba: Carter At Odds With Bush On Havana Policy

  • Andrew Tully

Since he served four years as president of the United States in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter has spent much of his time involving himself in human rights worldwide. He has monitored elections and even helped negotiate crises. This week he is in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro permitted him to address the communist-ruled country's human-rights problems in a televised address. But Carter also urged Washington to take a positive approach to persuading Castro to make democratic reforms. This is contrary to the policy of the current U.S. president, George W. Bush.

Washington, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During his visit to Cuba this week, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has been given free rein to speak with whomever he wants -- and about what he wants -- in a country where speech that contradicts the country's president, Fidel Castro, is not permitted.

But Carter also urged the United States to end its efforts to isolate Cuba politically and economically. Carter said a more lenient policy is needed to encourage democratic reform. This directly contradicts the stance of America's current president, George W. Bush, who reportedly intends to act even tougher on Cuba.

During his visit to Cuba, Carter has so far made good use of his freedom of expression and association. He has conferred with some of the country's human-rights advocates, who briefed him on their concerns about the communist-ruled country.

And on 14 May, Carter made a televised address to the people of Cuba in which he expressed support for what he called the "fundamental right" of dissidents to demand direct elections that could lead to changes in their country's repressive laws.

But Carter also urged the United States to "take the first step" -- as he put it -- toward helping Cuba become a more democratic country by easing economic sanctions and lifting some restrictions against travel there by American citizens. According to the former U.S. president, to maintain the current punitive policy is bad for both sides.

"The embargo freezes the present impasse, inducing resentment, restricts the freedom of the United States citizens, and makes it difficult for us to exchange ideas and to demonstrate respect," Carter said.

Carter's speech came as Bush is reported to be planning more restrictive measures against Cuba, which Bush is expected to announce on 20 May during an address to a political rally in Miami, the largest city in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida, which has many residents who fled Castro's repression.

"The New York Times" reported that Bush plans to intensify economic sanctions against Cuba, to increase restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans, and to strengthen U.S. government broadcasts to the Caribbean country.

The exact details of Bush's stricter approach to Cuba will not be known until his announcement, but the U.S. president has made no secret of how he feels about the Havana government and its leader. Most recently, on 14 May at the White House, Bush said, "Fidel Castro is a dictator, and he is repressive, and he ought to have free elections, and he ought to have a free press, and he ought to free his prisoners, and he ought to encourage free enterprise. And my message to Fidel -- my message to the Cuban people -- is: Demand freedom and you've got a president who stands with you."

This is not the first time that Carter, as a former president, has involved himself in foreign affairs in a way that is at odds with the sitting administration. For example, in 1994, he went to Haiti to negotiate a peaceful end to a coup by Raoul Cedras when America's president at that time, Bill Clinton, appeared to be prepared to use military force if necessary.

In the current case, Carter may also be seen as interfering with Bush's foreign policy. But Bush himself says Carter's actions will have no impact on how he addresses Cuba.

"First of all, it doesn't complicate my foreign policy because I hadn't changed my foreign policy," Bush said.

Political analysts agree, for various reasons. One is David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, an independent Washington policy center. In fact, Boaz told RFE/RL that Carter's outspokenness in Cuba could actually help achieve Bush's goal: a more democratic form of government in Havana.

"I don't think it does complicate Bush's foreign policy. I think it's generally a good thing. People who look forward to the fall of the Castro regime should be glad that Jimmy Carter was there and gave a speech and talked about human rights in Cuba," Boaz said.

Similarly, however, Boaz said he does not believe Carter is influential enough to persuade Bush to modify his Cuba policy. According to Boaz, this policy is based on more than foreign concerns.

Boaz notes that it is politically important for Bush to take an anti-Castro stand because of the many Cuban refugees who live in Florida. The southern part of that state is only about 150 kilometers away from Cuba. And it is a state that he won by only a very slim margin in the 2000 presidential election.

If he runs for re-election in 2004, Boaz said, Bush needs a bigger victory in Florida, and is not about to risk that by softening his Cuba policy.

"In the short run, I think President Bush's foreign policy is based on his own views, the views of his advisers and the need to hold on to the Cuban-American vote in Florida. And I don't think any of those things are going to change because of the Carter visit," Boaz said.

Bill Frenzel, a former member of the U.S. Congress, agrees that Carter's trip to Cuba will have little or no effect on Bush's foreign policy, but for different reasons. Frenzel, who now specializes in politics at the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy center, said the U.S. media -- and the U.S. people -- have not paid great attention to the trip. Therefore, he said, Bush will feel little public pressure to adjust his own policy.

Second, Frenzel said the frequent foreign initiatives that Carter has mounted since he was president have diminished, not enhanced, his ability to influence sitting presidents. He said Carter has so often become publicly involved in monitoring elections and negotiating crises that he has become "a pest in international relations," as Frenzel put it.

Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, agreed that Carter can occasionally be an irritant to a sitting president. And he said Carter himself would probably resent Bush if their situations were reversed.

"My guess is that, were [Carter] the president and Bush the former president, [Carter] would be more than a little irritated if Bush were visiting a foreign country and essentially trying to make policy from a very different perspective," Sabato said.

But Sabato, too, said such an annoyance is not enough to affect Bush's foreign policy. Besides, he said Bush and other modern presidents must simply become accustomed to such interference. Sabato explained that for decades, foreign policy was not seen as an appropriate subject for political dissent in America. The rule of thumb, he said, was always that "politics ends at the water's edge."

But Sabato said that as the Vietnam War became increasingly divisive during the 1960s, even the conduct of foreign wars became an acceptable political target. He said Bush evidently understands that, and is prepared to ignore Carter while pressing ahead with his own Cuba policy.