- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Former President Jimmy Carter last night told Cubans for the first time of a fledgling democracy effort under way in their country, while Bush administration officials directly contradicted his assertion that he had asked about biological weapons in pre-trip briefings.
Mr. Carter's unprecedented speech, broadcast live and uncensored on state-controlled TV and radio, marked the first mention in the Cuban media of the petition for a referendum on human rights, an amnesty for political prisoners, the right to have a business, and electoral reform.
"I am informed that such an effort, called the Varela Project, has gathered sufficient signatures and has presented such a petition to the National Assembly," Mr. Carter said, speaking in Spanish from a prepared text before a gathering that included Fidel Castro.
"When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country," Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter's words came a day after he said U.S. officials had told him there was no evidence linking Cuba to the export of biological weaponry. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday the topic was never raised in Mr. Carter's May 9 briefing with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
"This question of bioweaponry was not raised by President Carter or brought up by Dr. Rice," Mr. Fleischer said yesterday.
Mr. Carter said Monday that the Bush administration attempted to undermine his trip to the communist island in a speech last week by John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Mr. Bolton charged that Cuba was working to develop biological weapons and had shared such technology with other rogue states.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday said he was "not surprised" at the administration's announcement regarding biological weapons, suggesting it was timed to undercut the former president's visit to Cuba.
The South Dakota Democrat said he supported Mr. Carter's trip as "the right thing to do."
Mr. Bolton said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation that Cuba had a biological offensive research capability.
However, Mr. Fleischer said the warning was issued first on March 19 during Senate testimony by Carl Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, and that Mr. Bolton was only reiterating the statement last week.
"This is a concern that goes back several months," Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Bolton's speech was not an attempt to sabotage the trip, said Mr. Fleischer, who noted Mr. Carter's record as a champion of human rights.
"The president wishes President Carter every bit of success in helping convince President Castro to change his regime, to change his tyrannical system, to bring freedom and to end the repression of the Cuban people," Mr. Fleischer said.
President Bush urged Cubans yesterday to "demand freedom" from Mr. Castro's one-party regime.
The president also said Mr. Carter's trip would not lead to a change in the administration's policy toward the island.
"It doesn't complicate my foreign policy because I haven't changed my foreign policy and that is Fidel Castro is a dictator and he is oppressive 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," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Carter arrived Sunday with his wife, Rosalynn, and was the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Mr. Castro took power in 1959.
The former president's mention of the Varela Project, whose organizers had submitted to the National Assembly 11,020 signatures, carried great symbolic value. The project is named for the Rev. Felix Varela, a Catholic priest and independence hero whose remains are kept in an urn in the University of Havana's Great Hall, where Mr. Carter delivered his speech.
"Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government," Mr. Carter said.
"I would like to see maybe a referendum held and the people of Cuba agree with the 10,000 citizens or disagree," he said. "I think the world would look on with admiration."
Cuba's Communist authorities claimed the campaign was "imported" from the United States.
Mr. Carter's words were warmly welcomed last night by a key American anti-Castro group.
"Fidel Castro had to sit there while he was given a speech on democracy, something the Cuban people have not been able to hear for 43 years," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
"I think [the speech] was unprecedented. When we spoke to Carter, this was more or less what we were looking for Cuban people heard things they hadn't heard before, Fidel Castro had to sit and listen," Mr. Garcia told Reuters news agency in Miami.
But in a remark sure to please Mr. Castro, Mr. Carter said it was time "to change our relationship and the way we think and talk about each other. Because the United States is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step."
Reminding his audience of how he normalized relations with communist China in 1979, Mr. Carter said the United States should lift the 43-year-old embargo on travel to and trade with Cuba and said Cuban Americans could serve as "a bridge of reconciliation."
Earlier in the day, Mr. Carter told Cuban students their country had good education and health systems, but that freedom of expression and assembly were just as important.
"We take pride in our freedom to criticize our own government and to change our government when we don't like it by voting in elections that are contested," Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter visited a Cuban biotechnology facility on Monday. He said he accepted Havana's claim that the laboratory was not being used for sharing biological weapons technology with other rogue states.
Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said it is "amazing and disappointing" for Mr. Carter to accept "at face value the assurances of Communist Cuban officials there that the facility is engaged solely in medical and humanitarian pursuits."
"The words and actions of Mr. Carter at this facility are a breach of trust, and it is made even worse, in that the individual involved in that breach is one in whom the American people once placed the ultimate trust and responsibility of the presidency," Mr. Allen said.
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill said Mr. Carter had the right to make the trip, but not to represent American interests.
"I think Carter means well, but at the end of the day, I believe President Bush and the administration should speak for the American people," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said the 40-year U.S. trade embargo on the Communist-run island would not be lifted anytime soon.
"When Castro changes his policies toward the United States" and Cubans are "not driving around in 1959 Chevrolets, more can happen in terms of relationship," Mr. Lott said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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