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Carter Wraps Up Cuba Trip With Press Conference - 2002-05-17

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says he accomplished most of his goals during his weeklong visit to Cuba. He ended his visit Friday after holding a news conference at the Havana convention center.

Mr. Carter said he had come to Cuba to speak to the Cuban people, to hold discussions with President Fidel Castro, other government officials and political dissidents and to foster an improvement in relations between Cuba and the United States. He said he had been successful in the first two goals, but that it remains to be seen if he will be able to reduce the barrier of distrust that currently divides the two nations.

The former U.S. president said he had had frank discussions with President Castro about the so-called Varela Project through which dissidents are seeking a referendum on democracy and human rights. Mr. Carter declined to reveal what Mr. Castro had said, but he said he hoped the Cuban leader would allow the text of the Varela Project to be published in government-controlled media so that an open debate over its merits would be possible.

"If the Varela project is pursued, it would be a true demonstration to foreigners, very critical foreigners, that Cubans are not afraid, within their own system of government, to consider dissident views in an open and positive and legal way. That, though, is a decision to be made by Cuban leaders, not by me," Mr. Carter said.

He also declined to comment on a speech President Bush is expected to make Monday on Cuba. The former president did say, however, that he thought it would be counterproductive for the United States to provide any open funding to Cuban dissidents. He said the dissidents themselves had told him that they would prefer non-governmental backing, if any, and that direct U.S. government funding would produce a stigma and give proof to the charge already made by the Castro government that the dissidents are on a foreign pay roll.

Mr. Carter repeated his own opposition to the 40 year U.S. embargo of Cuba, saying that it does little to promote change in Cuba. He also said it violates the right of U.S. citizens to travel anywhere they wish to in the world and to carry out business transactions with anyone with whom they wish to.

During his five-day stay in Cuba, Mr. Carter gave an unprecedented uncensored speech to the Cuban people on radio and television in which he spoke of human rights and the benefits of democracy. The full text of his speech was later published in government-run newspapers.

The former U.S. president also met with dozens of political dissidents as well as Cuban officials, religious leaders, educators and health workers. He said he would like to see his nation cooperate fully with Cuba on health and scientific research and that he will present his views in a report to President Bush this weekend. After that, he said, it will be up to President Bush and President Castro to either pursue better relations or continue with the current breach between the two neighboring nations.