| Carter's Visit to Cuba|
With Kevin Sullivan
Post Foreign Correspondent
Friday, May 17, 2002; 11 a.m. EDT
This week, Jimmy Carter became the first former U.S. president to visit Cuba and meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro in 74 years. Carter gave a live, nationally televised historic speech to the Cuban people Tuesday evening urging democracy and the end to the U.S. economic embargo. There were mixed reviews of his speech from the Cuban people -- describing difficulty hearing due to audio problems or disagreement on Carter's criticism of Cuba's record on democracy and human rights. Castro has made no public comment about the speech. Read the full story Among Some Cubans, Fuzzy Reception for Carter Speech (Post, May 16).
Kevin Sullivan, Post foreign correspondent in Mexico, discusses the impact of former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba.
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Omaha, Neb.: With the secret Carter-Castro negotiations in 1978, and this continued effort by the former President to lift the trade embargo, can you please explain the overall context of President Carter's fascination with Castro? The scene of them together at the baseball game gave the sense of a father-son relationship, which seems out of place with the political gap between ourselves and the Cubans since 1959. Has he always been pro-Castro?
Kevin Sullivan: I can't speak for what's in Carter's mind, but it's clear that he believes the US and Cuba should be trying to find a way to overcome their differences. That's what he's been trying to do for decades now. Others obviously think the differences are too great. Father and son? Maybe, but it looked exactly the opposite when Carter was lecturing on democracy and human rights at the University of Havana while Castro sat in the first row like an uncomfortable pupil.
Alexandria, Va.: Why should the U.S. act upon the recommendation of a one-term President who hasn't been active politically in 20 years?
If the public wanted the government to act based upon Carter's ideas would people not have clamored for him to get back into politics?
Kevin Sullivan: Nobody's talking about Carter in 2004. But Carter has been incredibly active in world affairs since he left office. And I think even many people who thought he was an awful president believe he is an honest and decent man whose views are worth listening to.
Burke, Va.: Under whose auspices is Carter being sent to Cuba? I can't understand why the Bush Administration would want this bleeding heart romping around representing the viewpoint of our government or the American people!
Kevin Sullivan: Carter is there on a private trip, approved by President Bush. He is not representing US government views--quite the opposite. But he believes a majority of Americans support a new approach to Cuba, and he's got growing numbers in both houses of the US Congress, from both parties, who agree with him. The president is about to harden his stand against Cuba, so we have quite a little storm brewing.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Does Jimmy Carter's visit add pressure on the next Cuban government to respond to his calls for greater human rights? Might his visit have positive long term effects for the Cuban people?
Kevin Sullivan: I love the phrase, "the next Cuban government." Castro looked a little stiff trying to field a bunt at the baseball game, but otherwise he appears to be holding steady. If we only know what the Cuban succession might look like, it would be easier to take a stab at your question. In the meantime, I think Carter has at the very least turned up the heat on Castro. Two days after Carter's speech, the state newspaper Granma published the entire transcript. That was startling--the dissidents have always been invisible in the official press there. Carter put them on the front page--and I think it's significant that it was two days later. They couldn't bring themselves to do it on day one, but the next day they felt forced to, I think. The dissidents think Carter has given them some cover, and some authority with which to press their ideas to other Cubans. We'll see. Maybe Castro will shut them all down tomorrow morning.
Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Of course Castro is a dictator and an oppressor, but the US deals with many others of his type. To me, open trade and as many contacts as possible with the U.S. would be the quickest way for accelerate changes for the better in Cuba. The embargo is over 40 years old - are the "anti-Castros" so politically powerful in the US they can keep a discredited methodology of US-Cuba relations going on forever?
Kevin Sullivan: Many people share your views, and this is the point that Congressman Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and more than 30 of his colleagues from both parties have been pressing lately. President Bush strongly disagrees, and he has taken a much tougher line on those who try to travel to or do any business with Cuba. Now is that "moral clarity" or is it the political reality of Miami, where Cubans helped elect him and are a key to the re-election of Gov. Jeb Bush? Opinions differ.
Lansing, Mich.: In addition to attempting to win the vote of Cuban-Americans in Florida, are there other economic and/or political reasons for Pres. Bush to harden the U.S. position against Cuba?
Kevin Sullivan: I'm sure I'll be corrected, but I can't think of any. Politically, seems like there would be many fewer headaches in taking some middle line with the growing number of members of Congress who want to ease restrictions on travel, and trade, especially of food and medicine. Economically, the embargo closes a market, which farmers in the midwest are increasingly noting. But President Bush has made it clear that he believes the Castro regime should not be nourished with American money and products, no matter how well-meaning.
Bowie, Md.: To many American conservatives, Jimmy Carter personifies all that was wrong with America before Ronald Reagan. They especially associate him with weak, impotent foreign policy and this meeting with Fidel Castro is a combination of farce and tragedy.
But how has Jimmy Carter influenced Third World, especially Latin American, views of and relations with the United States? The countries there obviously respect him personally, but is U.S. influence in the region any different, for better or worse, than it would have been without him?
Kevin Sullivan: Carter's presidency, despite its many flaws, was actually a fairly progressive time in relations with Cuba. Carter re-opened diplomatic missions in Havana and Washington, and talking is always better than not talking. He pressured Castro into releasing thousands of political prisoners. Although Castro ended up sticking it to Carter with the Mariel boatlift, the Carter years were a time of movement on Cuba.
In Latin American, the US needs all the PR it can get. We are not widely loved in the region; pick a country south of the Rio Grande and you'll find strong sentiment that we are bullies. Lots of people like us, too, but a huge number do not. Carter, especially in places like Nicaragua, where he has observed elections and advocated for human rights, has helped improve the image of the United States. People like him personally, but he's still introduced as the ex-president of the United States--and that has reflected well on all of us.
Virginia: Is there any freedom in Cuba? Why are Cubans who spoke against Castro jailed while it won't happen here if someone spoke against Bush.
Kevin Sullivan: Great question. There is limited freedom in Cuba. As a foreign journalist, I have never been stopped from talking to anyone. And no one I have spoken with has ever been punished, to my knowledge. People can go to church, they can hold meetings to talk about human rights. But there is a limit. As Carter pointed out, the Cuban constitution guarantees speech and assembly, but other laws and other common practice prevent people from exercising those rights. Vladimiro Roca, a dissident, was recently released after nearly five years in prison for sedition. His crime: publishing a flier saying that Cuba needed to open up. Clearly, this is not a society that respects rights in anything like the way we do in the United States. This was Carter's point. He stopped short of saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," but he told Castro and the Cuban people quite bluntly that Cuba needs freedom before it will be fully accepted into the world community.
Gullsgate, Minn: Kevin Sullivan: Bush sits in the big white house on Penn...calculating policy on the basis of votes - that's 'presidential'?
Carter goes to Cuba sans calculator to advocate positive change and to recognize human rights, ours and theirs. Now that's 'presidential'.
So where's the problem?
And yes, Castro looked like the trouble making kid who didn't like to be reprimanded in school assembly in front of all his peers.
The absurdity of trading with some countries with totalitarian regimes and building fences around others needs to be addressed. Carter started the ball rolling toward exposing our own incredible double speak globally.
Kevin Sullivan: That sounds like a great letter to your Congressman.
Reston, Va.: After Carter leaves, do you think Castro will publicly address the Cuban people commenting on Carter's speech?
Kevin Sullivan: No one has ever won a speech-making contest with Fidel Castro. I'm sure he will address the issue. And I'm sure it will be featured nightly for weeks on the Mesa Redonda, the pro-government roundtable on state TV. The question is whether Carter's comments and critiques will be fairly represented, or whether they will be turned into some sort of distorted pinata to be whacked around by pro-Castro commentators.
Arlington, Va: As a Democrat, I've always been troubled by Carter's willingness to engage in familiarity with despots, whether it's kissing Brezhnev over SALT II or even the Queen Mother on the lips. Could the Administration have stopped him from going? You might look at the Logan Act, sometimes known as the Jane Fonda Act, which can be used to stop citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. I mean, political freedoms for recognition and dropping the boycott sounds like a deal.
Kevin Sullivan: Yes, the trip required permission from the Bush administration. I'm told that Bush was quite unhappy that Carter was going, but he couldn't think of a way to deny permission without looking bad. On the despot issue (the Queen Mum, for the record, was not a despot, despite what my Irish relatives say), I think Carter believes there is value in looking Castro in the eye--which most U.S. officials are not inclined to do. I'm sure Carter will have much more to say about what he saw in the weeks and months ahead.
Vienna, Va.: Why this media fascination with Carter? Remember, this is the man who gave away the Panama Canal on the loud mouths of some college demonstrators, snuggles up constantly to the thugs in North Korea, allowed Teheran to keep our hostages for almost 400 days, allowed the military to waste away to almost nothing......to the point where it couldn't even get into Iran to start with, and in general, didn't do much more as President except make a public fool of himself.
Kevin Sullivan: I'm not sure Carter rises to the level of "media fascination." Seems to me we see him building houses for the poor once in a while, but I haven't seen him dominating the front pages in a long time. On North Korea, Carter just about single-handedly averted a war over Pyongyang's nuclear program a few years ago--even though his presence there, and his appearance on CNN to announce the deal--infuritated President Clinton. He has a long history of going against the Washington grain in the name of what he thinks is right. Knock his failures, but give him his due.
Kevin Sullivan: I think our time is up. But thank you all for the interesting questions. We're going to be hearing a lot more about Cuba in the weeks ahead. Thank you.
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