Jimmy Carter tells Cubans about fledgling democracy effort, civil liberties on live TV

Wednesday, May 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ Jimmy Carter addressed Cubans in an unprecedented hour of live, uncensored television _ telling them that their country does not meet international standards of democracy and repeatedly promoting a grass-roots campaign for greater civil liberties.

Cuban newspapers on Wednesday underscored Carter's criticisms of Washington's policies toward Havana, but did not mention the former American president's references to a lack of liberties. The Communist Party daily Granma's only brief mention of a reform referendum known as the Varela Project _ which Carter praised in his speech _ noted merely that pro-government speakers had denounced it.

It was not immediately clear if Carter's Tuesday night speech, broadcast across Cuba, would turn out to be more than a dramatic goodwill concession by Cuban President Fidel Castro toward the former American president who did more than any other to try to ease tensions between their two nations.

Carter balanced comments on Cuba's system with a call for the United States to end the embargo on U.S. trade and travel that for 40 years has failed in its expressed purpose of bringing change in Cuba.

``Our two nations have been trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for 42 years, and it is time for us to change our relationship,'' he said.

``Because the United States is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step,'' Carter said.

President Bush, who plans to outline his future Cuban plan next week, stood by his hard-line policy on Tuesday. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said after a meeting with Bush on Wednesday that the United States and Cuba ``must tear down the barriers that do exist.''

Russia praised Castro for allowing Carter to visit and expressed hope that Carter's visit would lead to an end of the embargo. ``We share (Carter's) opinion that it is time to normalize these relations, and cancel the American embargo,'' the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

For many Cubans, Carter's address Tuesday, delivered in heavily accented Spanish, was the first time they had heard such a public airing of opinions that differ from their government's views.

Democracy, Carter told viewers, ``is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups and to have fair and open trials.''

``Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government,'' Carter said.

The top U.S. diplomat in Havana, Vicki Huddleston, praised Carter for his frank talk about Cuba's human rights situation, saying he was ``courageous'' to talk about it with the Cuban nation.

``It made me so proud to hear him address the internal situation in Cuba, which is not caused by the embargo, but by the government itself,'' said Huddleston, who attended the speech at the University of Havana.

Huddleston steered away from Carter's call for an end to trade sanctions, which are supported by the Bush administration. Rather, Huddleston concentrated on the men's desire ``to empower the Cuban people, for them to have the right to decide their own future.''

Carter's words caused discomfort for some Cubans, but many expressed optimism about Carter's hopeful words on improving relations.

``On the day that relations between our countries are normalized, Cuba should thank Carter,'' said Gisela Frances, a 36-year-old office worker. ``He has planted an important little seed.''

Castro, who had been shunned by current and former American presidents for four decades, welcomed Carter with a promise that he could meet anyone, and say anything.

On Wednesday, the former U.S. president was to visit a drug rehabilitation center, a school for disabled children and a neighborhood governing council. Later he was to meet with church leaders at a Baptist church, followed by an official farewell dinner, although Carter doesn't leave until Friday.

In a historic moment of domestic promotion for Cuba's dissident movement, Carter praised the Varela Project, which gathered 11,020 signatures to appeal _ under Cuba's constitution _ for a referendum on rights such as free speech, free assembly and freedom to create a business.

``When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country,'' said Carter.

For many Cubans, it was the first time they had heard of the Varela Project. Given an opportunity to comment, pro-government members of the audience attacked the project as a U.S. plot.

Castro offered only lukewarm applause as Carter finished his speech, but smiled as Carter expressed gratitude for the chance to speak.

In a sign that there were no hard feelings, Castro accompanied Carter in throwing out the first ball at Cuba's All-Star baseball game, and sat beside him for four innings _ often chatting and gesturing in ways that suggested they were discussing baseball.

While many Cubans said they had listened to Carter's words, the reaction was muted _ and circumspect _ in the streets of Old Havana.

Unlike many other countries in Latin America, Cuba has no polling industry, so public reaction is nearly impossible to gauge.

Carter's speech ``was excellent,'' said housewife Landolina Tenerero, 57. ``He's the only one who has spoken correctly about things here.'' Asked if that could mean change, she said, ``anything can happen here.''

Francisco Cordero, a 37-year-old industrial worker, grinned as he said that Carter's speech was ``very good.'' He said he agreed with Carter's call for better relations with the United States. Asked about the Varela project, he added, tersely, ``The same.''

Carter _ who traveled here with official permission from the U.S. government, which licenses all American travel to Cuba _ did not spare his own country, pointing to America's large prison population, inequalities in applying the death penalty, and the shortcomings of health care.

``Still, guaranteed civil liberties offer every citizen an opportunity to change these laws,'' he said.