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President Carter's Cuba Trip Report

By Jimmy Carter

Thanks to the generosity of J.B. Fuqua and the Ford Foundation, Rosalynn, John Hardman, Jennifer McCoy, Bob Pastor, and Chip and Becky Carter were able to fly to Cuba.
Having received several verbal invitations from President Fidel Castro to visit Cuba, I accepted an official one in January, and we made arrangements for the trip through the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. Our key request was for me to speak directly to the Cuban people, preferably in the evening and with live television coverage, and this was granted.

Prior to the trip, we had a number of briefings from interested groups, including the conservative Cuban American National Foundation, moderate and relatively unbiased experts, international agencies, and the U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies. One key question that we asked American officials was if there was any indication that Cuba had been involved with any foreign government in promoting terrorist activities, directly or indirectly. We were assured that no such evidence existed.

Our goals were to establish a dialog with Castro, to reach out to the Cuban people, and to pursue ways to improve U.S.-Cuban relations. I wanted to explore with the president and other Cuban leaders any indication of flexibility in economic or political policy that might help to ease tensions between our two countries. For instance, having been quite familiar with Deng Xiaoping's transformation of China's economy by gradually permitting small family businesses to expand, I thought this might be one possibility. Also, foreign investors would be more inclined toward Cuba if they could hire and pay their own employees directly instead of through state agencies.

The Varela Project was a subject of great publicity, and a petition from more than 11,000 citizens was presented to the National Assembly a few days before our arrival. As apparently permitted under Cuba's constitution, the petition called for a referendum on: a) freedom of ex-pression and association; b) amnesty for political prisoners not accused of attempted murder; c) rights of private enterprise; d) direct election of public officials; and e) elections to be held within one year. In my speech to the nation, I called for some of these rights, for the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to resolve property claims, an extensive exchange of university students, and for the utilization of responsible Cuban Americans as a possible bridge between Cuba and the United States.

We were received at the Havana airport by the president with full honors and a warm welcoming address. We considered it significant that he wore a business suit rather than his normal military uniform, and this was his custom throughout our visit until he said goodbye at the airport the day we left. I responded in Spanish, giving the time and place of my major speech and expressing hope that it could be broadcast both through television and radio. I wanted to be sure that there would be some public awareness of the university address. Subsequently it was advertised in advance in the government newspaper Granma.

During our ride in to the hotel, President Castro and I had a friendly chat about growing peanuts, the total freedom we would have while in Cuba, and his hope that I would attend the All-Star baseball game and perhaps throw out the first ball. He was thoroughly familiar with our plans for the visit, and assured me that there would be no restraints, that all my activities and statements would be covered by the large media contingent, and that my Tuesday speech would be on TV and radio and rebroadcast at later times.

When we arrived at the small Santa Isabel Hotel in colonial Havana, President Castro introduced us to Eusebio Leal, the historian and curator who has been responsible for the renovation of the old city. After lunch and a tour of the historic area, we met with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. I decided to cover the major items I wanted to discuss later with President Castro, so that he would be forewarned and we might be more likely to focus on the specific matters. We then visited with the U.S. Interest Section for a briefing and to greet the families.

That evening President Castro and I had a general discussion of issues and then enjoyed an ornate banquet, attended by our group and by President Castro, Vice President Carlos Lage, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, and a few other officials. President Castro had apparently been urged to abbreviate our meeting, but he was inclined to recite detailed information about Cuban achievements in health, education, and other matters. I gave him a collection of recently declassified documents from my administration and tried to concentrate on a few key suggestions.

Among the items I discussed were the themes that would be included in my speech, such as the Varela Project, the right of families to have small businesses and hire neighbors, Cuba's inviting the International Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights to visit the country and ascertain the status of prisons and human rights, and student exchanges. President Castro took notes, said he would consider all the issues, and that he would explore assisting with African health problems.

Monday morning we met with Oswaldo Payá, leader of the Varela Project and Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba's best-known human rights leader. Paya explained the process of securing more than 11,000 signatures on the petition, assured us that the U.S. government had not given assistance in the effort and stated that he would refuse such help. I described to them the responses I had received during the previous evening's banquet, which were technical in nature, and attempted to distinguish between changes in laws vs. constitutional amendments. Our hotel was staked out by some of the 150 or so foreign reporters who are covering our visit, and they talked to Payá and Sanchez afterward.

We then went to the Center for Genetic Engineering, where we received a detailed report on some of Cuba's extraordinary commitments to research and production of advanced medicines needed in the Third World, including Hepatitis B and C, some forms of cancer, and meningitis. They have shared technology with several nations and a number of international pharmaceutical companies, under tight constraints against use for illicit purposes. They have agreed to a recent arrangement with Iran that is not yet implemented, but none with Iraq or Libya. I informed the research scientists that I had been briefed by state and intelligence agencies and discussed my trip with the White House, but no one had mentioned any concern about Cuba's involvement with bio-terrorism or any other terrorism. In fact, when we had asked pointedly if there was evidence of any kind about Cuba's contributing to terrorist activities in any foreign country, the answer was "No." If there is evidence, I'm sure the U.S. will reveal it, or take advantage of President Castro's public offer to welcome any international investigative team to biomedical laboratories.

We had lunch with Vice President Carlos Lage and the Director of the Central Bank, and talked mostly about economic matters. They were proud of Cuba's relatively stable currency (27 pesos per dollar), and Lage seemed adamant against any liberalizing of Cuba's policy concerning self-employment. We then visited a School for Social Workers, where high school graduates who do not pass the high standards for the university are given two years of college level education in subjects that train them to serve the needy, distribute books, become assistant teachers and health workers, etc.

Our next visit was to a remarkable medical school for students from African countries, 23 Latin American nations, plus the United States. Here, with all expenses paid, more than 6,000 young people receive six years of education and are then prepared to pass the international examination to practice medicine. The 31 American students have completed their first year, including Spanish language training, and told us that their only cost is the airplane ticket when they return home for a visit. After enjoying a brief outdoor musical presentation to the entire student body, I made a few remarks about health projects of The Carter Center, and then Fidel spoke to them for more than an hour.

We were late for our private supper with the ambassadors of Canada, Spain, Mexico, and the UNDP representative, each of whom gave us a detailed analysis of Cuba's internal and foreign relations.

Tuesday we visited the Los Cocos AIDS sanitorium, where each patient is given three to six months of treatment and counseling. Any pregnant woman found to be HIV positive receives a complete course of AZT treatment (produced in Cuba). The people are then free to return to their home communities. WHO statistics show that the incidence of AIDS in Cuba is the lowest in this hemisphere, and there are now more than 800 Cuban doctors in Haiti alone working to control the AIDS epidemic. President Castro has offered an almost unlimited number to be sent to Africa, to be paid by the Cuban government with only a small stipend from the host countries.

Our next visit was to an agricultural cooperative, where 151 farm families work about 700 acres of land, producing a wide variety of grain, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The elected leader of the co-op made a very large salary, the equivalent of $1,200 annually. They pointed out that there is a high degree of private enterprise in the marketing of agricultural products and that city families have recently been encouraged to plant small plots around their homes and sell their excess produce. This is one of the few opportunities for self-employment permitted in Cuba, except for motor transport, the renting of rooms in one's home, and doing home repair work for others.

That evening at the University of Havana I made a speech and then answered questions that, as promised, was carried live on television and radio. It was later rebroadcast, and the entire transcript was published in the two Cuban newspapers. Subsequently, we could not find anyone on the streets or in the markets who had not heard it. All analysts said it was the first time in 43 years that citizens had heard any public criticism of the Cuban government, much less direct condemnation of human rights violations, a call for international inspectors, and promotion of the Varela project. I anticipated President Castro would be upset, but he greeted me after the session, and we attended the Cuban All-Star baseball game, where I threw out the first pitch.

The next morning we visited centers for the treatment of mentally retarded and physically handicapped children, who gave amazing musical and dance performances. Later, Rosalynn and Dr. Hardman met with psychiatrists who described the treatment of patients with mental illnesses. We visited Las Guasimas, a housing development similar to a Habitat for Humanity project, with families obtaining title to their homes and making monthly payments of 40 pesos, equivalent to US$1.50. Not even President Castro's enemies questioned the fact that 85 percent of Cubans own their own homes, or that practically 100 percent of the people are literate, immunized against 13 diseases, and have family physician care.

After this we had an alfresco lunch with National Assembly President Alarcon, and spent most of the time talking about how he will handle the Varela petition. He replied in circuitous language that the government had not yet made a decision, but he saw both a technical issue based on interpretation of the law and also a political issue. Legally, the petition could be peremptorily rejected, and many arguments could be made against it. Politically, it would be necessary to justify a decision to the people, with those already knowing or caring about it, he said, already realizing that it was a "North American" project. We tried to convince him that the petitioners deserved a full and open hearing even if their effort was rejected.

That afternoon we went to the Martin Luther King Center for an assembly of Jews and Protestant Christians. After songs and the main sermon, mostly concerning suffering caused by the U.S. embargo, I gave an impromptu Christian message in Spanish. This group seemed fervent in their faith but almost totally aligned with Cuba and when questioned could think of no criticisms or prospective changes in government policies. They did ask for more access to mass media, publishing materials, and new church buildings, and realized that they had to be more united.

That evening Rosalynn and I met privately for almost two hours with President Castro, where I pressed him unsuccessfully on some suggestions for opening up his closed political and economic system. We assessed his motivations to be a genuine belief in maintaining equity of treatment and an absence of class distinctions for Cubans and determination to retain the tightest possible control over all aspects of life in the nation. Also, he fears that any conciliatory action would be seen as a sign of weakness against a country "that is still attacking us." After an exchange of gifts, we attended a large, ornate, and delightful official banquet, to which my son Chip and his entire Friendship Force exchange group were invited. The courses of food were interspersed with delightful musical entertainment, and afterward we lingered to greet all the performers and the guests. After our party left for the hotel, President Castro stayed for another hour to have individual photos and to sign autographs for the 23 Friendship Force members.

Thursday morning we drove to the Pinar del Rio province for bird watching, followed by unscheduled visits to villages and public markets that were arranged by Luis Gomez Echeverria, the UNDP representative who has been in Cuba for three years. In one typical small city of about 25,000 there were three health clinics and one hospital, with a doctor for each 170 people. Doctors at the poorest clinic saw about 80 patients daily, had some shortages of medicine, and an EKG machine with the wrong kind of paper; but they said they could act to prevent illnesses, give routine family care and emergency treatment, and that the EKG in the hospital worked properly.

At a large farmers' market we visited some of the 700 booths that are rented to private entrepreneurs for 5 percent of their sales. There was a wide assortment of prepared foods, vegetables, fruits, and meats. The shopkeepers said they bought their produce directly from campesinos, and their businesses were thriving. The place was packed with hundreds of customers, and the prices were astonishingly low, about 1/20 of those in U.S. stores. There was a small section devoted to sales by the government, with very few customers in the area.

We then had extensive meetings with a wide range of the most notable dissidents, each the leader of an organization and many having completed prison sentences for their demands for change in the socialist regime. They were unanimous in expressing appreciation for my speech, willingness to risk punishment rather than be silent, hope that American visitation could be expanded, and opposition to any elevation of harsh rhetoric from the United States toward Cuba and to any funding of their efforts from the U.S. government. Any knowledge or report of such financial support would just give credibility to the long-standing claims of President Castro that they were "paid lackeys" of Washington. Although some doubted the efficacy of the Varela project, all except one of the 27 agreed that their organizations should support it.

We then met with Catholic Church leaders, who deplored their lack of freedom, were grateful for permission to have services and not be outlawed completely, and extremely cautious about any public challenge to the government on any controversial issue.

After a tour through Ernest Hemingway's home, we attended a concert of classical music and dance, modern Cuban music, and folklore. At the end, all of us joined the performers on the outdoor stage and continued dancing. Alarcon was at the performance and gave me a summary of comments derived from a public opinion poll after my speech. There was a broad range of opinion, in general much more negative than the reaction of people who lined the streets, cheered us at every stop, and greeted us profusely in the market places.

Friday morning I summarized my thoughts about issues and our experiences in Cuba during a press conference before our departure.

Remarks by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the University of Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 14, 2002

The United States and Cuba: A Vision for the 21st Century

I appreciate President Castro's invitation for us to visit Cuba, and have been delighted with the hospitality we have received since arriving here. It is a great honor to address the Cuban people.

After a long and agonizing struggle, Cuba achieved its independence a century ago, and a complex relationship soon developed between our two countries. The great powers in Europe and Asia viewed "imperialism" as the natural order of the time and they expected the United States to colonize Cuba as the Europeans had done in Africa. The United States chose instead to help Cuba become independent, but not completely. The Platt Amendment gave my country the right to intervene in Cuba's internal affairs until President Franklin Roosevelt had the wisdom to repeal this claim in May 1934.

The dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown more than 43 years ago, and a few years later the Cuban revolution aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Since then, our nations have followed different philosophical and political paths.

The hard truth is that neither the United States nor Cuba has managed to define a positive and beneficial relationship. Will this new century find our neighboring people living in harmony and friendship? I have come here in search of an answer to that question.

There are some in Cuba who think the simple answer is for the United States to lift the embargo, and there are some in my country who believe the answer is for your president to step down from power and allow free elections. There is no doubt that the question deserves a more comprehensive assessment.

I have restudied the complicated history (in preparation for my conversations with President Castro), and realize that there are no simple answers.

I did not come here to interfere in Cuba's internal affairs, but to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people and to offer a vision of the future for our two countries and for all the Americas.

That vision includes a Cuba fully integrated into a democratic hemisphere, participating in a Free Trade Area of the Americas and with our citizens traveling without restraint to visit each other. I want a massive student exchange between our universities. I want the people of the United States and Cuba to share more than a love of baseball and wonderful music. I want us to be friends, and to respect each other.

Our two nations have been trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for 42 years, and it is time for us 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.

First, my hope is that the Congress will soon act to permit unrestricted travel between the United States and Cuba, establish open trading relationships, and repeal the embargo. I should add that these restraints are not the source of Cuba's economic problems. Cuba can trade with more than 100 countries, and buy medicines, for example, more cheaply in Mexico than in the United States. But the embargo freezes the existing impasse, induces anger and resentment, restricts the freedoms of US citizens, and makes it difficult for us to exchange ideas and respect.

Second, I hope that Cuba and the United States can resolve the 40-year-old property disputes with some creativity. In many cases, we are debating ancient claims about decrepit sugar mills, an antique telephone company, and many other obsolete holdings. Most U.S. companies have already absorbed the losses, but some others want to be paid, and many Cubans who fled the revolution retain a sentimental attachment for their homes. We resolved similar problems when I normalized relations with China in 1979. I propose that our two countries establish a blue-ribbon commission to address the legitimate concerns of all sides in a positive and constructive manner.

Third, some of those who left this beautiful island have demonstrated vividly that the key to a flourishing economy is to use individual entrepreneurial skills. But many Cubans in South Florida remain angry over their departure and their divided families. We need to define a future so they can serve as a bridge of reconciliation between Cuba and the United States.

Are such normal relationships possible? I believe they are.

Except for the stagnant relations between the United States and Cuba, the world has been changing greatly, and especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. As late as 1977, when I became President, there were only two democracies in South America, and one in Central America. Today, almost every country in the Americas is a democracy.

I am not using a U.S. definition of "democracy." The term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948, and it was defined very precisely by all the other countries of the Americas in the Inter-American Democratic Charter last September. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.

Only such governments can be members of the OAS, join a Free Trade Area of the Americas, or participate in the Summits of the Americas. Today, any regime that takes power by unconstitutional means will be ostracized, as was shown in the rejection of the Venezuelan coup last month.

Democracy is a framework that permits a people to accommodate changing times and correct past mistakes. Since our independence, the United States has rid itself of slavery, granted women the right to vote, ended almost a century of legal racial discrimination, and just this year reformed its election laws to correct problems we faced in Florida 18 months ago.

Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements. Your Constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.

My nation is hardly perfect in human rights. A very large number of our citizens are incarcerated in prison, and there is little doubt that the death penalty is imposed most harshly on those who are poor, black, or mentally ill. For more than a quarter century, we have struggled unsuccessfully to guarantee the basic right of universal health care for our people. Still, guaranteed civil liberties offer every citizen an opportunity to change these laws.

That fundamental right is also guaranteed to Cubans. It is gratifying to note that Articles 63 and 88 of your constitution allows citizens to petition the National Assembly to permit a referendum to change laws if 10,000 or more citizens sign it. 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. 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.

Cuba has superb systems of health care and universal education, but last month, most Latin American governments joined a majority in the United Nations Human Rights Commission in calling on Cuba to meet universally accepted standards in civil liberties. I would ask that you permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and that you would receive the UN Human Rights Commissioner to address such issues as prisoners of conscience and the treatment of inmates. These visits could help refute any unwarranted criticisms.

Public opinion surveys show that a majority of people in the United States would like to see the economic embargo ended, normal travel between our two countries, friendship between our people, and Cuba to be welcomed into the community of democracies in the Americas. At the same time, most of my fellow citizens believe that the issues of economic and political freedom need to be addressed by the Cuban people.

After 43 years of animosity, we hope that someday soon, you can reach across the great divide that separates our two countries and say, "We are ready to join the community of democracies," and I hope that Americans will soon open our arms to you and say, "We welcome you as our friends."

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