Cuban president invites Carter to tour biotech sites during visit

Offer follows accusation Cuba developed biological arms, aided rogue states

May 13, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HAVANA - Former President Jimmy Carter began a five-day visit to Cuba yesterday with a promise from President Fidel Castro that he could inspect any of the island's biotechnology research facilities.

The offer, made at a welcoming ceremony, seeks to blunt allegations by the State Department on May 6 that Cuba had developed a limited capacity to make biological weapons and that it had shared biotechnology with "rogue" nations.

Carter, who is here with a small delegation from his Atlanta-based Carter Center, had already been scheduled to visit a genetic engineering facility that is a showcase for the Cuban government.

"If you are interested and if you wish," Castro said, "you may have free and complete access, together with any specialists of your choosing, to that or any other of our most prestigious scientific research centers, some of which have been recently accused, just a few days before your visit, of producing biological weapons."

Carter made no specific reference to the offer during his address. He did, however, say he came as a friend of the Cuban people and was looking forward to meeting with Cubans from all walks of life.

"We are eager to personally see your achievements in education, health and culture," Carter said. "We also appreciate the opportunity to meet with President Castro, other members of the government, and representatives of religious and other groups." Castro said Carter was free to meet with any dissidents he wished.

Carter, accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, and his delegation, arrived at 10:45 a.m. in an executive jet that flew directly from Atlanta. He smiled as he stepped off the plane and shook hands with Castro, who was dressed in a charcoal-gray suit instead of his usual olive drab fatigues.

The modest welcoming ceremony was limited to a small circle of top Cuban officials and the chief of the U.S. Interests Section here.

Castro praised the former American president as a man of courage, adding that the Carter administration brought a brief thaw to relations between Cuba and the United States even as the Cold War raged.

"It is no secret that for almost a century, there have not been optimal relations between the two states, and there still are not," Castro said. "However, I wish to state that in the four years of your tenure as president, you had the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations."

Carter jokingly played down any heroism on his part. "To demonstrate the courage President Castro mentioned, I am going to continue my address in Spanish," Carter said, and he did so.

Carter is the most prominent American political figure to travel to Cuba since 1959.

Bush administration officials said when they approved the visit that they hoped Carter would use the opportunity to promote human rights and democracy. A spokesman for Carter said at the time that administration officials had not tried to dissuade him or asked him to carry specific messages.

Those who favor more open relations with Cuba praised Carter's visit as an effort to start a new dialogue. The trip was denounced by others, though, as a sop to Castro, whose country is facing economic problems and international criticism for its human rights record.

Bush is expected to spell out his Cuba policy May 20 in Miami at a ceremony celebrating the centennial of the founding of the Cuban republic.

Carter's visit occurs two days after human rights advocates here delivered petitions signed by more than 11,000 people asking for a referendum on greater economic and political freedoms and amnesty for political prisoners. Supporters of the petition drive and other human rights advocates will meet with Carter on Thursday.

Carter said the ideals of human rights and democracy were dear to him and alluded to the Carter Center's work. "We understand that on some of these themes we have differences," he said. "But we appreciate the opportunity to identify some points in common and some areas of cooperation."

Although human rights advocates are looking forward to Thursday's meeting, as well as Carter's televised address tomorrow night from the University of Havana, they do not expect any harsh challenges to Castro. Some have worried that Carter's visit could help Castro improve his domestic image because he was rebuffed recently in Geneva by the United Nation Human Rights Commission and also has strained relations with former Latin-American allies.

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