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Mary McGrory

Upstaged by Carter

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, May 16, 2002; Page A25

If George W. Bush succumbed to exasperation this week, he was entitled. There he was on Monday announcing a historic agreement with Russia to reciprocally reduce nuclear arsenals. And what was the lead on the evening news shows? It was Jimmy Carter in Havana wearing a white suit, smiling up at Fidel Castro, who was for once in mufti. And then there was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who could have been beating the drums for Bush's Cold War peacemaking and instead was taking Jimmy Carter's side in an argument about Cuba's germ warfare capacity that started in the State Department.

There was worse the next day: Carter made a televised speech in Spanish to a large assembly of Cuban students with Castro in their midst. He was doing the headiest thing in politics -- speaking truth to power. He told Castro his human rights record was bad and he ought to learn how to deal with dissenters and pay attention to the discomfort of his people. Carter also told his own countrymen they should grow up and stop punishing Cuba with a trade embargo and a travel ban.

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The reaction from the White House was swift and strong. Bush will make the policy. He will tighten the screws on Castro and also on Americans who insist on traveling to Havana.

The Cuban Working Group in the House of Representatives, which claims 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans and tries to introduce a rational note into our relations with Cuba, had a meeting yesterday morning -- and sighed over the news of Bush's unreconstructed hard-nose approach.

"He is paying off a political debt to the Miami Cubans," said Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) at the Working Group's meeting. "He owes them for what they did for him in 2000 and for what they will do for his brother Jeb, who's running for reelection in Florida. I don't think the Carter trip will have any influence in Washington, but it should help the dissidents in Havana -- they never expected the kind of exposure that Carter gave them. He has credibility, the kind that comes with moral clarity."

Carter is a problem for Bush in that he has become the most admired ex-president in history, right after John Quincy Adams, who left the White House to fight for freedom as a member of Congress. Carter, whose presidency was marked mainly by self-righteousness and bad luck, was born again as an elder statesman. Since he quit the Oval Office, he has devoted himself to good works. He has built houses for the poor with Habitat for Humanity. He has helped reduce river blindness and guinea worm disease in Africa; he has gone to a string of mean little countries to monitor elections.

Republicans don't trash him. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, the ultra-right-winger, who deplores Carter's travel itinerary, calls Carter "a great humanitarian." Warlords trying to go straight feel lucky if they snag Carter to certify their experiments in democracy.

Obviously Team Bush was nervous about his effect on Cuba. Apprehension was reflected in a jolting statement about Cuba's "limited offensive biological warfare" from John Bolton, who occupies the post of undersecretary of state for arms control and disarmament, two issues with which he has no visible connection. When he threw his biological grenade, Carter punched back. He has been briefed by Bush officials, including Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, who lectured Carter on his obligation to talk about human rights, a subject the Bush crowd softpedals in communication with China, a tyrannical government with which we have cordial relations.

Carter did as much for human rights as a previous illustrious visitor, Pope John Paul II, whose 1998 trip was somewhat diminished by the hurried pullout of television anchors urgently summoned to Washington to deal with the Monica Lewinsky crisis.

The most helpful thing Carter did may have been to meet with Cuban dissidents, a term that was up to now an oxymoron. Heretofore people pleading publicly for democracy and reform of Cuba's Soviet-style misrule would have been clapped in jail on the informing of the legion of spies and snitches that Castro has assembled to keep himself in power. But the members of the Varela Project proudly showed Carter a petition bearing 11,000 names of people who want a new day, and pointed out to him that the Cuban constitution allows citizens to petition the government if 10,000 signers can be found. Castro let it all happen.

In Congress, members of both parties vote in increasing numbers for a change every time the 42-year-old Cuba policy comes up. But George Bush would rather keep Cubans hungry than take any chances for himself and his brother with the folks who thought Elian Gonzalez would be better off dead than red.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company