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Open Letter to the National Summit on Cuba

By Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Greetings to those who have gathered in Miami for the second National Summit on Cuba.

My visit to Cuba in May of 2002 was the first by a U.S. president since the 1959 Revolution. I went at the invitation of Fidel Castro to discuss our common interests in improving world health and inter-American relations. Rather than interfere in Cuba's internal affairs, I went to extend a hand of friendship directly to the Cuban people and to urge mutual respect between our societies. Regrettably, neither the United States nor Cuba has been willing or able to define this positive relationship.

The events of the past year have been disturbing, leading some to call for an even deeper isolation of Cuba by the United States. The Cuban government has imposed extraordinarily harsh prison sentences on Cuban citizens peaceably seeking to change their country's legislation and promote freedoms of expression and assembly and also has executed hijackers in Cuba after summary trials, while the U.S. government has further restricted the rights of American citizens to travel where they please.

While distressing, the actions by both governments simply reinforce the points I made more than a year ago during my speech in Havana. I called on the United States to end the trade embargo, not because U.S. policy is responsible for the economic hardships that Cubans endure, but because as the more powerful nation, we should take the first step. I also supported the right of all U.S. citizens to trade and travel freely, and I called for an unrestricted student exchange between our universities, believing, as I have for a quarter of a century, that cultural interchange between neighbors holds no threat for free societies. Deepening the divide that separates our countries is not the answer.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts citizens' rights to choose their own leaders, speak freely, organize political parties and civil society organizations, and have fair and open trials. This aspiration must be fulfilled by the people of Cuba. I consider the Varela Project to be an effort by Cubans to work with one another to change laws peacefully. In Havana, I noted the concerns expressed by many Latin American countries that after four decades Cuba has yet to meet universally accepted standards of civil liberties despite tremendous progress on health care and education.

These have been my views since I was president, and they have not changed.

U.S.-Cuban relations have been frozen for four decades - but the world has changed. The Cold War has ended, as Mikhail Gorbachev so eloquently points out. The Cuban family has also changed. Citizens are asking for their basic rights of free speech and assembly, while upholding their right to decide their future for themselves as a sovereign country. In the United States, Cuban-Americans now include recent migrants and a new generation born in the U.S. Views are diversifying, with polls showing that the majority now favors increased ties - travel and remittances, not more punitive measures that hurt their family members in Cuba. In this respect, the Cuban government's announcement that it will end the visa requirement for many Cuban-Americans is most welcome.

Cuban-Americans are seeking creative alternatives, and I applaud this search. This Summit is a chance for an open dialogue among those who care deeply about the island. It takes courage to make change, to be receptive to new ideas. Though I could not be with you today, I urge you all to be courageous in listening to and debating every idea presented and to seek new ways to improve the lives of all Cubans no matter where they live.

I look forward to seeing the results of your deliberation.

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