- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

HAVANA For more than two decades, Jimmy Carter has worked to improve U.S. relations with communist Cuba. The former U.S. president will give it another shot when he arrives today at the invitation of President Fidel Castro.
During his 1977-81 presidency, Mr. Carter helped reestablish diplomatic missions in both countries, negotiated the release of thousands of political prisoners and made it possible for Cuban exiles to visit their relatives on the island and, for a short time, other Americans to travel here freely.
But a U.S. trade embargo is still in place after four decades, and relations are as chilly as they've ever been. So the 77-year-old Mr. Carter seems determined to try to plant the seeds for future dialogue when he meets with Mr. Castro, 75.
Mr. Carter will be the first U.S. president in or out of office to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution that put Mr. Castro in power. Calvin Coolidge was the last American head of state to come, in 1928.
During his visit, Mr. Carter "will have the opportunity to contact and meet with as many citizens as he wants to," the Cuban Communist Party's newspaper said.
Wayne Smith, who was the chief U.S. diplomat to Havana during the Carter administration, said he didn't expect "any miracles." But, he added, "Carter cannot achieve less than [President] Bush has, which has been zero."
The Bush administration has hardened the U.S. stance toward Havana, promising not to ease trade sanctions until Cuba holds free elections and releases political prisoners.
Although Mr. Carter has emphasized that this is a private visit, and that 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 Mr. Carter to talk bluntly with his host about human rights and democracy two of Mr. Carter's favorite subjects. He has made a post-presidential career out of monitoring elections in developing democracies.
"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 Mr. Carter will bring up Project Varela, a campaign by Cuban activists to force a referendum asking voters if they want individual guarantees such as freedom of speech and the right to start their own businesses. The organizers delivered their petition signatures to the National Assembly on Friday.
Meanwhile, Cuban officials and a growing number of Americans who oppose U.S. sanctions hope Mr. Carter will publicly condemn the trade embargo.
"To emphasize dialogue and engagement is the best means to advance U.S. 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 U.S. diplomat who is president of the Cuba Policy Foundation.
Mr. Carter has long been on record as opposing the embargo. Earlier this year, he said increasing trade and Americans' visits to Cuba could spread understanding of the advantages of freedom.
Mr. Castro and Mr. Carter will have plenty of time to talk, especially during two dinners that Mr. Castro plans for today and Wednesday.
Mr. Carter is traveling with his wife, Rosalynn, and a small group of executives and 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. Mr. Carter is to make a live televised address to the Cuban people Tuesday evening.
Mr. Carter's staff has said he will meet with members of human rights and religious groups Thursday. The delegation is to depart Cuba around midday Friday, after Mr. Carter holds a news conference.


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