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Carter Speech Draws Mixed Reactions in Havana - 2002-05-15

In Havana, there has been mixed reaction to the speech delivered to the nation Tuesday by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Political dissidents are applauding the speech, the government media is ignoring most of its content and many ordinary Cubans are simply hopeful that it will bring about a change.

The official newspaper, Granma, gave front page coverage to the Carter speech, but reported nothing of his comments about democracy and human rights in Cuba. Nor did the newspaper mention statements made by students and faculty at the University of Havana, where the speech was delivered, that challenged some of what the former president had to say.

In his speech, Mr. Carter called for a democratic opening in Cuba and gave special attention to the Varela Project, a petition delivered to the National Assembly last week asking for a referendum on free elections, freedom of expression and an amnesty for political prisoners.

The main organizer of the petition drive, which gathered more than 11,000 signatures, Oswaldo Paya told the Voice of America that Mr. Carter's speech helped spread the word about the effort here in Cuba.

He says it is sad that a former U.S. president has to come and speak in order for the Cuban people to know about a legal project done by Cubans. He says this highlights the lack of freedom that exists in Cuba, where the government controls all communications media. Mr. Paya says the Carter speech has given many Cubans the hope that things might change and the knowledge that there may be a road to change created by Cubans right here.

But speaking to people on the streets of Havana, reporters found a more cautious response. Some who listened to the speech are only willing to say it was good, but glancing around to see who might be listening, they decline to say more. Many people say they did not listen to the speech since it was not well-publicized in advance. Some students from the university tell VOA they heard about the speech, but were not able to attend. Still, one student says he hopes Mr. Carter's visit will help improve relations between Cuba and the United States.

He says Cubans are grateful to Mr. Carter for actions he took when he was president that made it easier for Cuban exiles to travel to their homeland. He says he hopes there can be more such improvements. In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Carter called on the U.S. Congress to drop travel restrictions for American citizens who want to visit Cuba. He also called for an end to the 40-year U.S. economic embargo, a position applauded by both government supporters and most dissidents here.

It appears unlikely that there will be any change in policy here after Mr. Carter leaves on Friday. The government of President Fidel Castro has shown no inclination to change and has attacked the Varela Project as a plot financed by the United States.

Mr. Castro has also defended his nation's human rights record, saying that human rights cannot exist without social justice. The Cuban leader says there is more social justice here in Cuba than there is in many of the countries that have condemned his government for violating human rights.