Carter hopes trip will influence new Cuba policy

U.S. aid for dissidents would help Castro dismiss their efforts, he warns


HAVANA, Cuba - As the Bush administration prepares to announce a more aggressive policy on Cuba, former President Jimmy Carter strongly warned that such a move would be counterproductive.

Carter said yesterday that the Cuban dissidents he met with on Thursday "expressed deep concerns" that aid from the United States would help President Fidel Castro dismiss their efforts as illegitimate.

President Bush is expected to announce on Monday the results of a policy review on Cuba, which could suggest helping dissidents, human rights advocates and independent journalists.

"For them to be connected directly to the U.S. government - or indirectly to the U.S. government - for financing would damage severely their integrity," Carter said during a news conference before returning to Georgia after his five-day visit to Cuba.

Although Bush has said he is a friend to Cubans seeking democracy, dissidents here are uncomfortable with pillars of his anticipated policy. An adviser to Carter said that many of the dissidents favor lifting the trade embargo.

Dissidents have previously said they rejected U.S. aid because it would taint their efforts, especially with the Varela Project, a petition drive seeking a referendum on increased freedoms. One of Castro's main arguments against the project is that it was a foreign creation.

At the news conference yesterday morning, Carter said the Cuban government has to decide how to respond to the Varela Project's demands or if it would even allow public debate. Cuba's state-run media published a speech by Carter in which he endorsed the project and criticized the Communist government.

"I would say the millions of Cubans who now know about it [the Varela Project] for the first time will have their concerns assuaged by the proper actions of the government," Carter said. "Will it be completely discounted? Will there be an open dialogue about it?"

Carter said he hopes his report about the trip - which included "extensive" discussions with Castro and left favorable impressions of advances in health and education - would be reviewed by Bush before the new policy is announced.

Carter repeated yesterday his call for the United States to end its trade embargo and to allow unrestricted travel between the two nations. He said greater cooperation among scientific researchers could help dispel fears that the Cuban government is conducting research on biological weapons, as the State Department recently alleged.

The administration is expected to rigorously enforce travel restrictions that in recent years have been flouted by tens of thousands of Americans who illegally travel here through other countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas.

Carter said the trade and travel bans are less of a burden on Cuba, which has access to other trading partners, than they are setbacks to fundamental U.S. freedoms.

"I see the embargo and the travel restraints as an imposition on the human rights of American citizens," he said. "I think an American citizen or an American company has the right to visit any place on Earth and the right to trade with any purchaser or supplier on Earth."

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