- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been a master at camouflaging the truth in his little Caribbean fiefdom. This week, his stature as liar-in-chief was bolstered by former President Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba. As for Mr. Carter's own credibility, the trip will probably only serve to confirm the poor opinion many Americans have long had of the man's intelligence.

Mr. Carter has insisted he is in Cuba merely as a private person. But once a U.S. president, always a president. Former office-holders always carry residual dignity conferred by the office. Furthermore, former presidents, by tradition, do not criticize sitting ones, and particularly not from the shores of America's enemies. Mr. Carter's meddling regarding Cuba's potential export of biotechnology was therefore particularly unwelcome. In response to a statement made by Undersecretary of State John Bolton last week about Cuba's export of biotechnology which Mr. Bolton said could be used for weapons of mass destruction Mr. Carter charged that the allegations were timed to undermine his trip to Cuba. He also said he asked administration and intelligence officials to give him proof of such a claim, which they were not able to provide.

Mr. Carter's ill-considered statements hurt the Bush administration's credibility at a critical time for the nation. The jury is still out on whether Cuba's biotechnology transfers have been generating dangerous weapons proliferation. Still, Mr. Carter's comments seemed to suggest that Mr. Castro has a clean bill of health in this regard, which is just as outrageous as his criticism of Mr. Bush.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, however, and it could be that Mr. Carter has given the human rights movement a push forward in Cuba. During his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Carter spoke of an unprecedented drive for civil rights, known as the Varela Project named for a 19th-century Catholic priest and Cuban independence activist. Oswaldo Paya, the mastermind of the project, has called for a national referendum on free speech, free elections, amnesty for political prisoners and the right to own private businesses.

On Friday, Mr. Paya delivered to Cuba's National Assembly, the country's farcical legislature, 11,020 signatures supporting the Varela Project referendum. The signatories have bravely risked beatings, imprisonment, unemployment and ostracism by signing on. According to Fidel's own 1976 Constitution, any citizen can petition the National Assembly for a referendum on any issue if he marshals the support of more than 10,000 voters.

In the past, Fidel has taken advantage of Mr. Carter's naive efforts to advance human rights. During the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Fidel allowed U.S. shores to be flooded not only with political prisoners, but with the most hardened Cuban criminals as well. The former president does not have a whole lot of credibility in dealing with the wily dictator as a consequence. Still, the Varela Project deserves U.S. support and would have received it without Mr. Carter's meddling.

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