Carter Meets With Dissidents, Tours Biotech Lab in Cuba
By John Rice
Carter, the first U.S. head of state in or out of office to visit Cuba
since Castro's 1959 revolution, also met with two leading
Cuban dissidents Monday for a briefing on human rights. The opposition leaders called on Carter to promoted dialogue
between the two countries.
Traveling with his wife and a small group of executives and staff from
his Carter Center, the former American president had no
biotechnology experts in his delegation for the visit to the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology on the outskirts of
Havana. Carter has a science background, but in nuclear technology.
Elizardo Sanchez and Oswaldo Paya, who saw Carter at his hotel, are
both coordinators of Project Varela, a proposed
referendum asking voters if they want guarantees of individual freedoms, an amnesty for political prisoners, the right to own
their business and electoral reforms.
Paya said the men explained the need for dialogue. "Carter understands the concept very well because he is a man of dialogue."
In Washington, a White House spokesman said Monday that Castro should
give his own people the same freedom to travel
and speak to dissidents that he has given Carter.
"Why have one standard for a visitor and have a far worse, much more
repressive standard for his own people?" Ari Fleischer
Carter, who did more than any other president to ease tensions with
Cuba, arrived Sunday to the strains of "The Star-Spangled
Banner." Castro turned to his visitor and said, "It's been a long time since that happened."
Carter's visit comes after the latest in many moments of U.S.-Cuban
tension. Last week Undersecretary of State John Bolton
said Cuba sought to develop biological weapons.
On Friday, Cuba denounced the claims as "lies," challenged the United
States for evidence and promised Carter "complete
access" to any Cuban biotechnology laboratory.
Sunday night, a dark-suited Castro threw a dinner for Carter and his
delegation at the Palace of the Revolution. The visit gave
the Cuban leader a chance to reach out to Americans, and he used it by symbolically throwing open the doors of the island to
Castro said a Carter speech on Tuesday would be broadcast live. "You
can express yourself freely whether or not we agree
with part of what you say or with everything you say," Castro said. "You will have free access to every place you want to go."
"We shall not take offense at any contact you may wish to make," he
added, an obvious reference to the dissidents and human
rights activists Carter plans to meet.
Cuban officials have been irritated with some other foreign leaders
who have held similar meetings, but Castro said Carter had
proved his sincerity in the past.
"A man who, in the middle of the Cold War and from the depth of an ocean
of prejudice, misinformation and distrust ... dared
to try to improve relations between both countries deserves respect."
Speaking in Spanish, Carter said he hoped "to discuss ideals that Rosalynn
and I hold dear ... peace, human rights, democracy
and the alleviation of suffering."
Carter, the first former or sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin
Coolidge came in 1928, has emphasized that this is a
private trip and that he will not be negotiating with the Cuban government.
There have been 10 American presidents since Castro took power, and relations were less hostile under Carter than any other.
As president, Carter oversaw the re-establishment of diplomatic exchanges
between the two countries and negotiated the
release of thousands of political prisoners. He also made it possible for Cuban exiles to visit relatives on the island and, for a
short time, for other Americans to travel here freely.
But relations have remained cold. A U.S. trade embargo is still in place
and visits by Americans are tightly limited, or are
supposed to be: tens of thousands skirt or ignore the travel ban each year.