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Former President Carter to Visit Cuba - 2002-05-03

Historically, Miami's large Cuban-American community has opposed most forms of contact between the United States and Cuba. But a prominent Cuban-American lobbying group is giving its qualified blessing to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's planned trip to the communist island later this month. For decades, Cuban exiles have expressed concern that foreign dignitaries' overtures to Cuban President Fidel Castro only serve to "legitimize" the communist leader, giving him a public relations boost.

But the Cuban American National Foundation, an influential lobbying group, is expressing support for former President Jimmy Carter's upcoming visit to the island as an opportunity to push human rights issues.

Jorge Mas Santos is chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, or CANF, which dispatched a delegation to Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday to meet with Mr. Carter and discuss the goals of the president's trip.

"President Carter has a great opportunity in Cuba," he said. "We think he can take advantage of that."

Mr. Mas says the ground rules established for President Carter's visit make the trip palatable to his organization.

"That he is going to have unfettered access to the Cuban people, through Cuban television and Cuban media; that he is going to be able to speak and move about the island freely," he said. "We think this could have a very positive impact."

Former President Carter has, for years, expressed opposition to the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, which the Cuban American National Foundation views as a critical tool to force democratic change on the island. Speaking with reporters recently, Mr. Carter gave no indication that his views have changed on the matter.

"I think the best way to bring about democratic changes in Cuba is, obviously, to have maximum commerce and trade and visitation by Americans and others who know freedom and to let the Cuban people know of the advantages," Mr. Carter said.

Observers say Mr. Carter's trip comes at a time when Cuban exiles are making a concerted effort to appear less strident and inflexible in staking their positions. The exile community was heavily criticized for intransigence amid the upheaval surrounding Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez two years ago, when overall U.S. public gradually swung in favor of reuniting the boy with his Castro-loyalist father.

The Cuban American National Foundation says Mr. Carter's trip to Cuba should focus on human rights and democratic change, not U.S.-Cuban policy.

"We have to advocate a position, opening a space for those in Cuba who cannot speak for themselves," CANF Chairman Jorge Mas Santos said. "It should not be a referendum on U.S.-Cuba policy, but advocate for freedom and human rights in Cuba."

However, many exiles doubt Mr. Carter's trip will, by itself, bring change to Cuba. They note that Fidel Castro remains staunchly committed to a socialist path, and has flatly rejected suggestions of reform from other high-profile visitors, most notably Pope John Paul II, who made a pilgrimage to Cuba in 1998.

Former President Carter will be in Cuba from May 12 through the 17, traveling as a private citizen. He will be the most prominent U.S. official to visit the island since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.