“I hope we can contribute to better relations between the two countries,” Jimmy Carter said describing his mission in visiting Havana this week. At a remarkable press conference as he left to return to the United States today he issued a powerful, resounding, call for major changes in US policy toward Cuba.
Briefing reporters at the Palacio de Convenciones in Havana, Carter touched on virtually every key aspect of US-Cuban relations: the embargo, the case of imprisoned AID contractor Alan Gross, the Cuban Five, Cuba’s inclusion on the terrorism list and the need for greater freedoms—not only for Cubans but for American citizens who are restricted from traveling to the island.
“I think one serious mistake that my country continues to make is the trade embargo,” Carter stated bluntly. The economic restrictions on commerce were “damaging to the well-being of every citizen in Cuba,” and “impeded rather than assisted” reforms that he hoped would be made on the island under Raul Castro’s leadership. “We should immediately lift the embargo,” Carter said, as well as all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
When the Carter trip was announced last week, many analysts believed he intended to bring imprisoned AID contractor Alan Gross back to the United States. Arrested in December 2009, Gross was prosecuted and convicted earlier this month for illegally distributing satellite communications gear to religious groups inside Cuba—part of a US government “democracy-promotion” program intended to undermine the Cuban regime. According to State Department officials, his arrest, conviction and sentence of fifteen years in prison has become a major stumbling block in improving US relations with Cuba.
But Carter made it clear that the Cuban government had warned him in advance not to expect Gross to be freed at this time. After visiting Gross at an undisclosed location this morning, Carter addressed the need for him to be released “because he is innocent of any serious threat to the Cuban people.” Gross’s conviction should be overturned by Cuba’s Supreme Court on appeal, Carter forcefully opined, or Raúl Castro should pardon him, or soon release him to his family on humanitarian grounds.
In perhaps his boldest—and riskiest—statement as a former US president, Carter also called for the release of the so-called Cuban Five, a handful of Cuban counterterrorism agents arrested by the FBI and convicted of spying against violent exile groups and other US targets in 1998. Carter noted that the five agents had been in US prisons for more than a dozen years and characterized their further incarceration as “unwarranted.”
In response to a question posed by The Nation about why Cuba remains on the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism, Carter was unequivocal: Cuba’s inclusion on the list was “completely unfounded” and based on “untrue allegations” that Cuba was harboring international terrorists from the FARC in Colombia and separatist Basque group ETA from Spain.
Indeed, to build a case to take Cuba off the list, Carter met in Havana with diplomats from both Spain and Colombia who said they welcomed Cuba’s policy of accepting the FARC and ETA members, as it facilitated communications between those groups and those governments. In a significant revelation, Carter told the press that US and Cuban intelligence were currently “cooperating” in counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda. “I think we should take Cuba off the terrorism list,” Carter stated bluntly.
Accompanied by his wife, Rosalyn, American University professor and former Carter White House aide Robert Pastor, Dr. Jennifer McCoy, director of the Carter Center’s America’s program, and Dr. John Hardman, president of the Center, Carter’s three-day trip was skillfully organized to give him maximum credibility as well as substantive political cover in pressing for changes in relations on both sides. Repeatedly during the press conference he called for respect for human rights and full freedoms for the Cuban people. This morning he met the internationally popular Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez as well as the recognized human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz. Monday he visited Cuba’s only Jewish community center in Havana. During his three days in Cuba, he also conferred with diplomats from other nations who have full relations with Havana. In a remarkable gesture to the importance the Cuban government attaches to the case of the Cuban Five, Carter visited two mothers and three wives of the detained Cuban agents.
This morning Carter met with Fidel Castro, whom he characterized as “an old friend.”
But his most important meeting was Tuesday night with Cuban President Raúl Castro. The six-hour summit started with chit-chat in a salon of the Palacio de Convenciones, and then moved to a relaxed dinner at Café del Orient—one of Cuba’s pre-eminent restaurants. After dinner, Castro was seen walking Carter and his wife back to their hotel in Old Havana. In a significant gesture, President Castro bid Carter goodbye at the airport, and told the press that he was sending a message to Obama with him that Cuba desired normal relations with Washington—as equals and without conditions.
In 2002 when Carter became the first and only former US president to visit Havana, he briefed President George Bush when he returned. (Bush tightened restrictions on travel as he began his 2004 re-election bid, and essentially called for the Cuban people to rise up and overthrow Castro.) Today Carter made it clear that he would be briefing President Obama on this trip as well and would suggest to him a variety of steps the president could take to improve ties. He noted that there would be “confidential matters” he would discuss with Obama, inferring that there were back-channel aspects to his meetings with Cuban President Raúl Castro.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1977, Carter issued a secret presidential decision memorandum on changing Cuba policy. “I have determined that we should attempt to normalize our relations with Cuba,” it stated. “When I was president I did the best I could to improve diplomatic relations,” he recalled, although his administration never achieved the full rapprochement with Cuba he envisioned. More than three decades later, Jimmy Carter remains clearly committed to that elusive goal.