Carter in Cuba: Then what?

As official criticism of Castro continues, the Carter visit marks changing US attitudes.

Cuba's Fidel Castro is fond of saying he's ruled through nine American presidents who have come and gone trying to see him and his revolution defeated.

The quip may say little for Mr. Castro's democratic credentials, but if the wily dictator turns on his famous sense of humor, he may find the moment to slip it in during this week's visit to Cuba by Jimmy Carter – US president No. 6 on Castro's list.

The Carter visit – the first of a sitting or former US president since Castro's 1959 revolution – is no laughing matter to the virulently anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby. Many in its ranks fear that Mr. Carter, who eased relations with the communist island while in office and today opposes the four-decade-old US embargo on Cuba, will appease their nemesis with smiles and handshakes while advancing the idea that US relations with Cuba should be normalized.

But most Cuba watchers say the Carter visit won't lead to any substantial changes in US-Cuba relations. With one Bush in the White House (thanks to a controversial election in Cuba-sensitive Florida), another Bush in the governor's seat in Florida (and facing reelection), and an anti-Castro Cuban-American in the State Department's top Western Hemisphere post, expect relations to remain disjointed for the foreseeable future.

"This visit can't hurt. Carter's going to address the Cuban people, and apparently he'll talk about human rights. But in the end, I'd expect Cuban policy to remain pretty much the same," says Miguel Díaz, director of the South America Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "The fact is that with the crises the administration has to deal with, Cuba isn't much of a priority."

While that may be true, the administration has found the time recently to turn a glance or two toward Cuba – perhaps as a kind of counterbalance to Carter's five-day visit, which began yesterday.

At last month's meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the US successfully pushed a resolution condemning Castro's regime for human rights violations. And last week, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemispheric affairs, said the embargo on Cuba would stay in place, because "we won't throw a life preserver to a regime that is sinking under the weight of its own historical failures."

It was the kind of remark that leaves Castro and other Cuban officials snickering, because US officials have been making similar claims about the bearded leader's impending demise for four decades.

Talk of biological weapons

Taken more seriously, however, was the claim made the same day by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, who alleged that Cuba has "at least" a limited program to develop offensive biological weapons. He also accused Cuba of supplying dual-use biotechnology to "rogue states" suspected of links to terrorist acts.

The Cuban government called the accusations "vile" and said it would provide a full response to the charges.

Mr. Bolton's accusation follows charges by some anti-Castro Cuban-American organizations that a joint Cuba-Iran venture in what Cuba says is pharmaceutical research is really a front for biological-weapons development. Cuba has one of the most advanced biotech- and genetic-engineering programs among third-world countries.

Some American experts on Cuba see the charges as the latest example of official Washington's habit of satanizing the Castro regime.

Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert who represented Washington in Havana under Carter, has long held the view that Cuba affects US officials the way the moon supposedly affects a werewolf. He says Bolton's statements are "grossly misleading and unsubstantiated allegations." But he also says there is an explanation for them.

"Many hard-line Cuban exiles and their political allies are riled that the Bush administration is permitting ... Carter to travel to Cuba," Mr. Smith said in a statement for the Washington-based Center for International Policy, where he heads the Cuba program.

He also sees a connection to Americans' changing perceptions of Cuba. "For several years now, coalitions of business, agriculture, political and rights groups have joined forces with an overwhelming majority in Congress to lift trade and travel restrictions against Cuba." The latest charges by Bolton and others "would appear to be a desperate effort to stay the inevitable."

Carter's mission

Where Smith and those like him join US officials is in criticizing the Castro regime's lack of democracy and poor human rights record. Proponents of a more open US policy say they hope Carter can have some impact in these areas.

Still, many experts note that Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 amid much fanfare and similar hopes. But aside from opening some space for freedom of worship, his visit had little impact on the Cuban government.

Carter will give a speech at the University of Havana that will be televised around the island country of 11 million people. The former president is also expected to sit down with a number of prominent dissidents, including Vladimiro Roca, who was released from prison a week ago with two months left to serve on his five-year sentence.

Carter is also expected to meet with Oswaldo Payá, who has stunned the Cuban government by quietly collecting 10,000 signatures on a petition demanding a national referendum to ask Cubans if they want civil liberties like freedom of speech, private enterprise, and an end to political imprisonment. The Cuban Constitution says a referendum should be called if 10,000 voters support it.

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