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Carter's Trip to Cuba Raises High Expectations

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrives in Cuba Sunday for a six-day visit to the communist nation. He was invited by Cuban President Fidel Castro and has permission from the U.S. government to make the visit.

It is the first-ever visit by a U.S. President, in or out of office, to Communist Cuba and it has raised many expectations among both Castro friends and foes are high. Supporters of the communist government hope Mr. Carter's strong opposition to the 40-year-U.S. embargo of Cuba will take on new force after his visit.

In the past year or two, hundreds of U.S. governors, congressional representatives, business leaders and agriculture sector representatives have made the trip to Havana voicing opposition to the embargo. Many of them are seeking an opening to Cuba's market, but some political figures say they oppose the embargo simply because it has not worked. They also argue that if the United States can have normal relations with communist nations like China and Vietnam, then there should be normal relations with this island nation less than 150 kilometers off the coast of Florida.

But those opposed to Fidel Castro, including some who support continuing the embargo, also see the Carter visit as positive. They believe the former U.S. president will make a strong statement for opening Cuba to democracy when he is given the opportunity to address the Cuban people on television Tuesday. They also see the possibility that he will support the so-called Project Varela, a petition with more than 10,000 signatures collected by political dissidents presented to the National Assembly Friday. The intent of the petition is to hold a national referendum on such issues as holding free elections, allowing freedom of speech and providing an amnesty for political prisoners. Mr. Carter is to meet with dissident leaders on Thursday.

When Jimmy Carter was president, from 1977 to 1981, relations with Cuba went through some dramatic changes. The Carter administration was successful in negotiating the release of 3,000 political prisoners in Cuba, but in 1980 Mr. Castro unleashed what has become known as the Mariel boatlift. In response to a large group of Cubans who tried to leave the country by seeking refuge in the Peruvian embassy, the Cuban leader announced that anyone wanting to leave could do so at the port of Mariel. Some 120,000 Cubans left for Florida, including thousands of criminals and mental patients who were released from institutions.

Although Fidel Castro is still in power in Cuba, the country has gone through some profound changes since that time. The Soviet Union disappeared more than a decade ago and Cuba has had to survive without the assistance that nation provided. There are no longer thousands of political prisoners, but there are still more than 240 people in jail for either expressing dissent or taking part in political activities. The small number of dissident leaders on the island has no access to the government-controlled media, but the dissidents are able to hold private meetings and many of them have become well known outside Cuba, if not within the country.

On the other hand, the 75-year-old Mr. Castro has shown no sign of willingness to change. He claims his nation already is democratic and that it has the best human rights record in the Americas.