Our Ex-President In Havana

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Jimmy Carter addressing the Development Cooperation Forum in February

Suddenly there was a knock on Jimmy Carter's suite at his hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, interrupting his scheduled interview with Flora Lewis of the New York Times. It was a member of Fidel Castro's entourage telling Carter's advisor, Robert Pastor, that the Cuban dictator was even then walking down from his suite three floors up en route to meet the former U.S. President. For months Carter had been trying to arrange a secret meeting with Castro: they eventually decided that the occasion of Carlos Andres Perez's inauguration as President of Venezuela in late February 1989 would be the ideal time. But Castro's timing was now off. A nervous Carter immediately sent somebody to detain Castro for the minute it would take to hustle Lewis out of the room; if the New York Times ran a story about Carter with Castro, the ex-president's relationship with the Bush administration would be terminated. (Dan Quayle, in Caracas representing the first Bush administration at Perez' inauguration, was already fuming about Carter's meeting that week with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega.) "I almost picked her up and walked her to the elevator to get her out of there in time," Pastor recalled. "And ten seconds later Castro burst into the room."

It seems every time Jimmy Carter applies for a visa, somebody in the U.S. government flinches. This week Carter will become the first U.S. president — in or out of office — to visit Cuba since the Castro seized power in 1959. Pro-trade American farmers see Carter's mission as a potential icebreaker between the two nations; others who believe Castro has brought about progressive policies in health care and education applaud Carter for recognizing that Castro is a caring communist, not a murderous thug. And official permission for the trip was granted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control on April 5, which ruled that Carter, as head of a Carter Center delegation, was allowed to visit under the license category of "activities of private foundations or research or education institutions."

But that doesn't mean this Bush Administration is any happier than the last one about Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro chatting behind its political back. The White House stands firmly behind Miami's Cuban-American community, which has stated that for Carter's mission to be successful he must tell Castro to relinquish dictatorial power at once. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insists that Carter should take a tough message directly to Castro "to stop the repression and to stop the imprisonments, to bring freedom to the people of Cuba." As for the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo Carter has pushed to have abolished since leaving the White House, Bush is standing behind it as a "moral statement." Meanwhile, the State Department will unveil their revised policy on Cuba on May 20 when President Bush visits Miami to commemorate Cuba's independence from Spain. It is likely to set a hard line.

Then there's the matter of the war on terror — and whether Cuba belongs on the enemies list. In a May 6 speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, publicly announced that American intelligence agencies have reached a stark conclusion. "The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort," Bolton said, in direct criticism of the Castro regime. Cuba "has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."

The Bush Administration, in fact, is convinced that Cuba is a genuine terrorist state only ninety miles from our shores capable of manufacturing genetically modified germ weapons. They've re-reported that in a speech delivered at Tehran University Castro boasted that Iran and Cuba could "bring America to its knees." Insisting that Cuba was just an innocent "lamb" trying to survive next to the American "dragon," Castro threatened that the "dragon would find its meal poisoned if it tried to eat the lamb."

Saturday, on the eve of Carter's six-day visit, Castro came out swinging. Speaking live on state television, Castro called on U.S. officials to "present even the most minimum proof" of the allegation Undersecretary of State John Bolton made Monday. "The only thing true in Bolton's lies is that Cuba is 90 miles away from United States territory?No one has ever presented a single shred of evidence that our homeland has conceived a program that develops nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," Castro said. "The doors of our institutions are open...Cuba has absolutely nothing to hide."

Indeed, Castro has promised Carter an island without restraints: he can travel and speak freely while in Cuba. And much of Carter's visit will have a human rights cast: a tour of the School for Social Workers (La Escuela de Trabajadores Sociales de Cojimar); a morning at the AIDS sanatorium "Los Cocos"; a discussion with the doctors at La Castellana Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center; and a luncheon hosted by farmers who want to export their agricultural goods to America.

But Castro is also hosting Carter for two official dinners, and the Bush Administration's fear is that every time Carter breaks bread with Castro, it will further legitimize his dictatorial regime in the eyes of the world community. Carter is also scheduled to deliver a 20-minute televised speech in Spanish from the University of Havana's main auditorium that is already being interpreted in Cuba as an anti-Bush gesture. Most troubling of all to the State Department is Carter's scheduled tour of the Biotech Institute (Centro de Ingenieria y Biotecnologia). They worry that Carter will be duped into believing that all Cuba manufactures in such facilities are pharmaceutical drugs and not deadly biological agents.

But for Carter and his effort to warm relations between the U.S. and its only enemy in the hemisphere, that 45-minute meeting 13 years ago in a Caracas hotel was a good beginning. "He surprised me with his intellect and humor," Carter told me in an interview. "Nothing much happened, but the meeting opened up a dialogue between us."

Encouraged, Carter tried to arrange a meeting with Castro when Bill Clinton was in the White House — only to have Vice President Al Gore shut him down. Eventually, Castro extended a verbal invitation to Carter when they were honorary pallbearers at the October 2000 funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In January 2002 Carter received a formal written invitation from Castro to visit Cuba, and when the Treasury Department reluctantly signed off, the historic visit was on.

Carter is well aware that many Americans deem his post 9-11 journey to Cuba a potential mistake — he doesn't care. Even if Cuba does have biological weapons, he reasons, shunning the nation won't help eliminate them. But talking might.

"I look forward to this opportunity to meet with Cuban people from all walks of life and to talk with President Castro," Carter declared before his departure. "More than a century after Cuba's independence, our two countries have not yet developed a constructive relationship, and although official interest sections were established while I was president, for the last 41 years our two nations have not had normal diplomatic relations. I do not expect this trip to change the Cuban government or its policies. However, it is an opportunity to explore issues of mutual interest between our citizens and to share ideas on how to improve the relationship between the United States and Cuba."

Douglas Brinkley is Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and is author of The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House.