April 1, 2011
At the invitation of President Raul Castro, Rosalynn and I visited Havana on behalf of The Carter Center, accompanied by John Hardman, Jennifer McCoy, Robert Pastor, Melissa Montgomery, John Moores, and Dianne Rosenberg.
The goals of our trip were to:
Prior to the trip I had conversations with Secretary of State Clinton, National Security Advisor Donilon, and Judy Gross.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between policies of Cuba and the U.S., based on more than half a century of efforts by leaders in Washington to disrupt and bring about changes in the communist regime of Fidel and Raul Castro.
An economic embargo continues against Cuba, codified into law by the Helms-Burton Act passed during the Clinton administration. Activities or funds expended under its auspices, as expressed officially in the Act, and also assumed by Cubans, are limited to democracy promotion programs designed to weaken and overthrow the Castro regime. Such U.S. activities are authorized by U.S. law and considered a crime against the state by Cuban law.
Except for certain causes (academic, journalistic, or religious) and Cuban-American families, American citizens are deprived of the right to visit Cuba.
The Cubans know that, as president, I lifted all travel restraints and made strides toward normalizing diplomatic relations. This included the establishment of Interest Sections in Havana and Washington, through which a modicum of diplomatic exchange could be conducted.
We were met at the airport by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban Interest Section Chief Jorge Alberto Bolaños, and U.S. Chief of Mission Jonathan Farrar. I rode to our hotel with the foreign minister, who acknowledged some positive steps taken by the Obama administration (which I enumerated in detail), but maintained that the overall impact of recent policies had been very damaging to Cuba, primarily because of a tightening of financial transactions through foreign banks. Also, the continuing Helms-Burton program for "democracy promotion," which is a regime change strategy funded at $20 million, remains a serious source of concern.
Our first briefing was at the U.S. Interest Section, where I also spoke to the assembled staff (in Spanish and English). We were surprised at the size of the staff - 50 Americans and 270 Cubans. There seems to be minimal direct contact between American diplomats and top Cuban officials.
We next had a delightful visit with leaders of the Cuban Jewish community. Although there is no rabbi in Cuba, the 1,500 Cuban Jews have a lively religious and social agenda. They say they have complete freedom to worship and adequate internet communication with the outside world, and that they had no substantive contact with Alan Gross.
Our next meeting was with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who explained the procedure by which the Cuban government permitted the release of the remaining 52 of the original 75 political prisoners incarcerated since March 2003 plus an additional 74 others over the last six months. Twelve of them were permitted to remain in Cuba and the others were exiled to Spain. The Cardinal also gave us a briefing on the status of the various religious groups in Cuba.
Rosalynn, Jennifer, and I had an extensive private session with Foreign Minister Rodriguez, who repeated much of our previous conversation and concentrated on the case of Alan Gross, who was arrested, tried, and convicted on his fifth visit to Cuba for "acts against the independence of the state." Under a USAID subcontract, he was in possession of equipment designed to enhance internet communication, ostensibly for the benefit of the Cuban Jewish community, using funds under the Helms-Burton Act. (I had been informed by the Cubans that American prisoner Alan Gross would not be released during my visit, but believe that this is a possibility after his appeals process is completed.)
In our breakfast meeting with ambassadors from Spain, Canada, Hungary, Mexico, UN, EU, Sweden, Brazil and Colombia, they reaffirmed what the Foreign Minister had said about the adverse effect on their banks and their movement of funds into Cuba as a result of new and more severe U.S. banking restrictions.
We raised a question about the terrorist list, and the Ambassadors from Spain and Colombia said they were not concerned about the presence of members of FARC, ETA, and ELN in Cuba. Indeed, they maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with these groups. In fact, ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.
We then had an extensive briefing on Cuban economic policy by Oswaldo Martinez, President of the National Assembly Economic Commission. He described Cuba's current problems and outlined steps being taken or contemplated for "cautious progress" toward reductions in state control over farming, trade, and services. Now, for instance, only about 50 percent of arable land is used, and idle land is being made available to private families on leases for "indefinite time." Several hundred thousand other citizens are being encouraged to adopt private means of employment.
After visiting an enormous senior citizens center we had lunch with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who further described the goals of the impending Congress assembly of about 1,000 people. He stated that more than 2/3 of the proposed paragraphs had been amended to accommodate suggestions from citizens.
We then met with two mothers and three wives of the "Cuban Five," who have now been incarcerated for more than twelve years. Their trial in the highly charged Miami political climate was considered to be biased by a U.S. appellate court, but subsequent appeals have been denied. Top Cuban officials claim they had personal assurance from President Clinton that there would be no more small plane flights over Havana, and that the U.S. was warned that no more "violations of Cuban sovereignty" would be permitted. Despite this, the small plane repeated its mission and was shot down. These officials claimed that the member of the Cuban 5 who was convicted of murder of the plane's crew could not have been involved.
Rosalynn, Jennifer, and I then had an extensive meeting with President Raul Castro, where we covered again many of the same economic and political issues. He gave an overview of the Cuban revolution, the Bay of Pigs incident, Cuba's often confrontational relationship with the Soviet Union, their armed forces' involvement in Angola and other places, his relationship with Fidel, and an outline of the speech he will make to the Party Congress. He received well my suggestion that he and his ministers have easier and more frequent access to foreign diplomats. All members of our group then joined other top Cuban officials at a supper hosted by the president.
Wednesday morning we met with a group of active dissidents, bloggers, and others and then hosted 10 of the 12 recently released political prisoners and their wives, who reported that they were still insisting that those exiled to Spain be permitted to return to Cuba. They complained about their difficulty in getting renewed ID cards and drivers' licenses.
Rosalynn and I had an extensive visit with Alan Gross in a military hospital where he is confined. He expressed some regrets at now being treated much better than his fellow prisoners (after earlier poorer treatment) and said he had adequate communications with his wife and family.
We then visited Fidel in his private home and found him to be vigorous, alert, and especially intent on monitoring voluminous media reports on his list of prescribed subjects. His primary health problem concerned his left knee and right shoulder, badly injured in a fall in 2004 at a ceremony honoring Che Guevara.
Before leaving Havana, I had a press conference, a TV interview, and another brief session with President Castro, who met me at the airport, where I repeated my request that Mr. Gross be released and relayed concerns I had received from the dissident groups. He promised to investigate the concerns and report his decisions to me.
In all, I believe the basic goals of The Carter Center were realized during the visit.
Some notes about the visit: Raul, Fidel, and other leaders are thoroughly familiar with our political system and the special pressures from a fading but still powerful minority of Cuban-Americans. They know that Helms-Burton cannot be repealed, and are experts on what authority the president has.
Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel, trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five, and end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul told the press, "I agree with everything that President Carter said."