- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

From combined dispatches

HAVANA Former President Jimmy Carter, after touring a Cuban biotechnology plant yesterday, said the Bush administration had tried to undermine his trip by accusing Havana of developing weapons of mass destruction.

"These allegations were made not coincidentally just before our visit to Cuba," Mr. Carter said with Cuban President Fidel Castro at his side after visiting Havana's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

Mr. Carter also said U.S. officials had told him before his visit that there was no evidence linking Cuba to the export of biological weaponry.

"I asked them specifically about any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information with any other nations on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes and the answer was no," he told reporters in a reference to pre-trip briefings by U.S. intelligence.

The former president, on a visit to try to mend relations with Cuba, also met two leading dissidents and encouraged their efforts to seek internal reform to the one-party communist state led by Mr. Castro.

John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, charged a week ago that Cuba was working to develop biological weapons and had shared such technology with other rogue states.

But Mr. Carter said the Bush administration's charges were timed to coincide with his visit.

Mr. Carter, who arrived Sunday, was the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Mr. Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday appeared to back off the charge, while saying Mr. Bolton's speech "was not breaking new ground."

Speaking to reporters on his way to a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Iceland, Mr. Powell said: "As Undersecretary Bolton said recently, we do believe Cuba has a biological offensive research capability. We didn't say it actually had some weapons but it has the capacity and capability to conduct such research."

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told public television's "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" last night that "there is plenty of reason to be very concerned about what the Cubans are doing in this area."

"Now how it is dealt with will depend in part on what Fidel Castro is willing to do," she said, alluding to likely inspections.

On Friday, Mr. Castro rejected the U.S. charge as a "lie" intended to counter growing support in the United States for establishing normal relations with Cuba.

Cuba says its biotechnology and genetic-engineering program, one of the most advanced in Latin America, is dedicated only to peaceful purposes and to making medicines and vaccines, including generic versions of four AIDS drugs.

Cuba has joint ventures with numerous countries, including Iran, Egypt and India, to produce pharmaceuticals. Since 1996, Cuba and Iran have been building a pharmaceutical research and production facility in Karaj, outside the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Dismissing the idea that Cuba was providing sensitive know-how to rogue nations, Mr. Carter said he believed Havana would abide by international agreements restraining the improper use of technology shared with other countries.

He said Cuban scientists deny that they have any technology transfer program with Libya and that a new program with Iran is not functioning yet. Dr. Luis Herrera, director of the center, said Cuba has no program with Iraq, either.

Antonio D. Esquivel and Rafel T. Cervantes, both members of the Revolutionary Recovery Movement, a Cuban-American group that campaigns against Mr. Castro, are skeptical about the assertions.

"What does Carter know about labs?" Mr. Cervantes said at a meeting with the editors of The Washington Times.

Traveling with his wife, Rosalynn, and a small group of executives and staff from his Carter Center, the former president had no biotechnology specialists in his delegation for the visit to the center. Mr. Carter has a background in nuclear technology.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Carter met for more than an hour with Elizardo Sanchez, a veteran activist, and Oswaldo Paya, who was leading a campaign for a national referendum on civil rights.

The dissidents said they informed Mr. Carter about political prisoners in Cuba, the human rights situation and the prospects for peaceful change under Mr. Castro.

"The situation will change for the good, but I don't know when," Mr. Sanchez told reporters after the meeting at Mr. Carter's hotel in the heart of Havana. "Our priority is to improve the situation of civil, political and economic rights, which are all violated by the government," he said.

Mr. Castro, who invited Mr. Carter because of his criticism of the 40-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, told the former president that he was free to meet anyone he wished.

The island's small but growing dissident movement has been galvanized by a campaign known as Project Varel to obtain a popular vote on expanding civic rights.

On Friday, Mr. Paya submitted to the Cuban legislature an unprecedented petition signed by 11,020 Cubans calling for a referendum as provided for in the country's constitution.

Mr. Carter will meet with a larger group of dissidents, between 15 and 20, on Thursday, Mr. Sanchez said.

The group was expected to include Vladimiro Roca, Cuba's most prominent dissident, who was freed from prison a week before Mr. Carter's visit, two months before he completed a five-year term on charges of subversion.

On Sunday, Mr. Castro said a Carter speech today 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," Mr. Castro said. "You will have free access to every place you want to go."

In Washington, a White House spokesman said yesterday that Mr. Castro should give his own people the same freedom to travel and speak to dissidents that he has given Mr. Carter.

"Why have one standard for a visitor and have a far worse, much more repressive standard for his own people?" Ari Fleischer said.

•Steve Park in Washington contributed to this article.

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