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Carter Meets Dissidents in Havana - 2002-05-16

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met Thursday with a broad range of political dissidents in Cuba, not all of whom are of the same mind on all issues. At the same time, in a move that surprised many long-time Cuba-watchers, official newspapers published the text of a speech Mr. Carter gave in Cuba Tuesday, in which he mentioned the dissidents and their cause.

The meeting, which included around 20 dissidents, took place in the home of a United Nations official in east Havana. Mr. Carter made no comments as he left the house, but several dissident leaders spoke with reporters and described the encounter as cordial. They said Mr. Carter said little and spent most of the nearly three-hour meeting listening to what they had to say.

Christian movement leader Oswaldo Paya, the main organizer of the so-called Varela Project, said the president had given the pro-democracy movement in Cuba a boost. But, he said, Cubans themselves must make the changes in their country.

He said that if the Cater visit results in a political opening in Cuba, it will be welcome, but he said the dissidents believe they must work to gain such openings themselves.

Mr. Paya downplayed divisions with other dissidents who disagree with the Varela Project. Some of them say this effort that resulted in a petition with more than 11,000 signatures presented to the National Assembly last week is unlikely to bring change. They also say it puts in danger the people who signed the document. Mr. Paya, however, says there are no strong divisions in dissident ranks over this issue and that his project has already had an impact by drawing attention to repression in Cuba.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights Commission and one of the central figures in the dissident community, agrees.

He says the divisions are tactical rather than profound disagreements over principles. He said the dissidents all agree on the need for democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba.

Mr. Sanchez said he was surprised in a positive way to see Thursday's edition of the official newspaper Granma carried the text of Mr. Carter's speech in which he mentioned the Varela project and called for democracy in Cuba. Mr. Sanchez described it as in his words "a Cuban glasnost," a reference to the opening in the former Soviet Union that eventually led to the end of communist rule.

Another prominent dissident who met with President Carter Thursday, Vladimiro Roca, was released from prison on May 5, just one week before Mr. Carter's arrival. He said he spoke with the former U.S. president about the abysmal conditions in Cuban prisons.

He said health conditions are deplorable. He said the prisons are hot, dirty, crowded and full of rats.

Asked about Jimmy Carter's visit, Mr. Roca said he thinks it should produce a positive change in his country. But the man who only 11 days ago emerged from nearly five years in prison for advocating change said it is always difficult to predict what the Castro government might do. He said he and other dissidents may find a more open atmosphere or they could all end up back in prison. He said he leaves his fate in the hands of God.