By Jimmy Carter
The Washington Post
A newspaper cartoon published while I was in Cuba showed me alone in a small lifeboat in the Caribbean, surrounded by sharks. The caption was, "I shouldn't have asked President Bush for a ride home."
In fact, the ultimate goals of the White House and The Carter Center are the same: to see complete freedom come to Cuba and, in the meantime, to have friendly relations between the people of our two nations. But the means to that end are quite different. One approach is to continue the four-decade effort to isolate and punish Cuba with restricted visits and an economic embargo. The other is for Americans to have maximum contact with Cubans, let them see clearly the advantages of a truly democratic society, and encourage them to bring about orderly changes in their society. In the United States, the two sides have become polarized, with some well-organized and politically influential Cuban immigrants aligned with most administrations in Washington to oppose any substantive changes in our policy. On the other hand, a growing number of business and agricultural leaders are joining congressional moderates to call for an easing of tensions and more normal relations with the people of Cuba. This stagnant face-off has robbed our country of a chance to achieve our common goals.
There are indications of openness and reform in Cuba. For the first time since the revolution 43 years ago, Cubans were permitted to hear a clear voice calling for freedom of speech and assembly, the organization of labor unions and opposition political parties, free elections and the admission of human rights and International Red Cross inspectors. Surprisingly, and without my requesting it, the entire text of my speech was broadcast on television and radio and printed in Granma, the official newspaper.
We found an unexpected degree of economic freedom. Cuban entrepreneurs are permitted to buy agricultural produce from farm families and cooperatives, process the meat, vegetables and fruit and sell the finished products from public booths. We visited one large market in Havana with 700 booths, all doing a thriving business. In addition, some homeowners are licensed to rent spare rooms to Cubans or foreigners, truck owners may haul goods for hire and artisans can contract for their services. Although modest by our standards, these developments indicate flexibility not previously evident.
There is little doubt that further reforms are thwarted by harsh demands from Washington or Miami, which alienate Cubans and create the perception that any further moves by the Cuban government would be a sign of weakness. The dissidents with whom we met in Cuba were unanimous in wanting to see less harsh rhetoric, more American visitation, an end to the economic embargo on food and medicine, and no direct or indirect financial connection between themselves and the U.S. government. The challenge now is to find common ground in dealing with Cuba on which Congress, private groups and the administration can cooperate. There are some possibilities that would be helpful to Cuban citizens without handing either side a political or propaganda victory. The key is to enhance people-to-people relationships, primarily through cultural exchanges. This would naturally involve entertainment and sports but also science, medicine, education and agriculture.
Cuba has a superb system of education and health. Alliances between Cuban and American specialists in these fields could be beneficial to both nations. Another need is to begin quiet discussions between moderate Cuban Americans and Cuban leaders, perhaps orchestrated by neutral parties. Both governments would have to ease their policies on visa permits.
Some allegations have been raised about bioterrorism. It is true that Cuban scientists have the technical capability of producing toxins, as do many thousands of others in the world. The best way to answer questions and prevent any temptation toward illicit activities is for researchers to work side by side in laboratories and to exchange information freely at international conferences. The wife of Cuba's foreign minister is a renowned medical scientist who specializes in cancer of the head and throat. She has always been free to attend meetings concerning her work, but her visa application was denied by the United States while we were in Havana. It would be helpful to curtail such restraints.
One reciprocal offer that already exists is to exchange university scholarships for graduate students. President Bush recently proposed this opportunity to certain Cuban students, and President Castro has offered six years of medical education to future doctors from the United States. Direct visits by private citizens are also helpful. One remarkable program is the Friendship Force, which provides such opportunities for Americans who wish to go to Cuba. Travelers stay in hotels for three nights and in private homes for the rest of the week, able to observe personally how our geographical neighbors live.
I would like to see unrestricted trade and visitation between Cuba and the United States, as would most Americans and a strong and growing group of Cuban immigrants in Miami. Until this goal is politically possible, we should take other, more modest steps toward reconciliation.
Former President Carter chairs The Carter Center in Atlanta, a nongovernmental organization working for peace and health worldwide.