Carter urges democracy in Cuba, calls for trade
HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for an end to the four-decade U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba and chided the communist-run island for its lack of democracy Tuesday.
Speaking at Havana University with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the audience, Carter said he came to Havana to "extend a hand of friendship" and "offer a vision of the future for our two countries." (Speech transcript)
"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," he said. "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."
Carter arrived in Havana on Sunday in the first visit to Cuba by a former or sitting U.S. leader since the communist revolution in 1959. His Tuesday address, given in Spanish, was broadcast live nationwide, and Castro had said the former U.S. leader could say whatever he wanted.
Carter said the United States should take the first step toward ending "a harmful state of belligerence" that has gone on for 42 years. While calling for an end to the U.S. embargo, Carter said that alone is not responsible for Cuba's economic problems, noting that Cuba already trades with more than 100 countries.
"But the embargo freezes the existing impasse, induces anger and resentment, restricts the freedoms of U.S. citizens and makes it difficult for us to exchange ideas and respect," he said.
While saying he did not come to Cuba to interfere in internal affairs, Carter criticized the lack of political freedoms under Castro's rule.
"Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements," he said. "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."
He noted that Cuba signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948 -- ability of citizens to choose their leaders, speak freely, organize unions and political parties and have access to a legal system that is open and just. Later, in answer to a question from the audience, Carter said: "We differ, Mr. Castro and I, on the definition of democracy."
Fleischer: Human rights comments 'helpful'
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on Wednesday said Carter's call for human rights reforms in Cuba was "helpful" and "positive," but his proposal to lift the U.S. trade embargo doesn't have the Bush administration's support.
Although Fleischer said he hadn't yet spoken to President Bush about Carter's speech, he was able to say, "The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of America's foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba, because trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba.
"It's used to prop up a repressive regime."
Fleischer added, "Cuba is an old-fashioned totalitarian country. It is not reforming, it is not engaging in economic progress where the people benefit from trade. It uses trade to prop itself up."
Bush plans to make remarks Monday, "about the importance of bringing democracy and freedom to Cuba," Fleischer said.
"He [Carter] said some things that the Cuban people have not heard before about their rights, about freedom in Cuba, and that's helpful and positive," Fleischer said.
Carter backs petition for political change
Carter spoke at the University of Havana from a hall called the Aula Magna, considered one of the most prestigious rooms at the school. Many Cubans know it as the room that contains the remains of Felix Varela, an early 20th-century priest who led a drive for a free Cuba during the twilight of the Spanish colonial era.
Varela's name has been adopted by the Varela Project, a Cuban group seeking to introduce political change. Carter expressed support for the Varela Project, which has presented a petition with 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly.
The petition calls for a referendum asking Cubans if they want freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to develop and own their own businesses, freedom for political prisoners and free and democratic elections.
Carter met with some of the leaders of the project Monday morning in a session he added to his agenda after arriving in Cuba. In his speech Tuesday, he said the U.S. record on human rights is "hardly perfect" -- but said American democratic institutions allow people to improve deficiencies.
Jorge Mas Santos, a leader of the influential Cuban exile movement in the United States, called Carter's comments "a very bold step."
"For the first time, the Cuban people have been able to hear what is democracy, what are free elections and that in order for Cuba to advance and be a partner in the free world, it needs to change -- and more importantly, that the Cuban people should decide their own destiny," said Mas Santos, the chairman of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation.
"The one thing that Fidel Castro will not be able to do is erase in the mind of the Cuban people -- today, tomorrow and in the days that follow -- their conversations and their discussions about the need for change, about the need for democracy, for freedom for the Cuban people," he said.
But he said his foundation opposes any change in U.S. policy until Castro actually implements reforms, including free elections and release of political prisoners.
Earlier Tuesday, Carter toured an AIDS clinic in Havana and an agricultural co-operative on the outskirts of the city. After his speech, Carter attended Cuba's all-star baseball game.
Monday, he visited a biotechnology plant and criticized a Bush administration statement on the eve of his visit suggesting that Cuba has been sharing biological-weapons technology with nations unfriendly to the United States.
Those comments brought a sharp reaction Tuesday from Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia. Allen blasted Carter's statements at the biotechnology facility, calling his comments "a breach of trust."
In comments on the Senate floor, Allen suggested that Carter "could advocate positive change for the beleaguered Cuban people" in Tuesday's speech, "rather than legitimizing a tyrant and a man who doesn't care for the well-being of his own people."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that U.S. officials have "plenty of reason to be concerned" that Cuba has given technology that could be used to develop biological weapons to countries such as Libya and Syria. But when asked whether any "hard evidence" existed, he said, "Nobody in the government said hard evidence. We said we have concerns."
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