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Carter hopes to improve U.S.-Cuba relations

Former President Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter  

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Former President Jimmy Carter tried to downplay expectations when he announced his trip to Cuba last month, saying he didn't expect the visit would change the Cuban government or its policies.

Still, Carter and others have expressed hope that the five-day visit, which starts Sunday, will foster an exchange of ideas and encourage improved relations between the two countries.

"I think it's a great trip, and I think Cuban people are expecting a great deal out of it," said Alfredo Duran of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a Washington-based group that supports normalizing U.S.-Cuban ties.

Carter's visit will be the first by a former U.S. president since the United States broke off relations with the Caribbean nation in 1961.

CNN's special coverage: "Inside Castro's Cuba" starts Sunday at 7 a.m. EDT. 
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The United States severed formal diplomatic relations with Cuba after Fidel Castro took power and turned Cuba into a Communist nation. A U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has been in effect for more than 40 years, though it has eased slightly in recent years.

Julia Sweig, deputy director of Latin America studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN she didn't expect Carter's visit to yield any concrete changes, but suggested its symbolism could influence Cuban and American opinion.

"It will be a very important step marking the continued erosion marking the old sense that the embargo made sense," Sweig said.

But critics of the trip don't expect Carter to influence Castro.

"It's much ado about nothing," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who represents a strong anti-Castro constituency in Miami, Florida.

Carter's visit was approved by the Bush administration, which said it hopes Carter will deliver to Castro a "stern and forceful" message about the need for human rights and democratic freedoms in the island nation.

After meetings with the head of the U.S. Interests Section and Cuba's foreign minister, and a walking tour of Old Havana, Carter is scheduled to meet with Castro on Sunday night. He also plans to deliver a live television address to the Cuban people Tuesday from the University of Havana.

Also on the agenda are visits to an AIDS sanatorium, a school for children with disabilities and the Latin American Medical School.

A Cuban opposition group Friday delivered to the National Assembly petitions with 11,020 signatures seeking sweeping social, economic and political reforms. The petitions call for free and democratic elections, the right of free speech and assembly, the right to invest and work in private enterprise and the release of all political prisoners.

Ahead of Carter's visit, members of a Cuban opposition group Friday delivered petitions to the National Assembly seeking sweeping social, economic and political reforms.
Ahead of Carter's visit, members of a Cuban opposition group Friday delivered petitions to the National Assembly seeking sweeping social, economic and political reforms.  

Cuba's constitution requires the National Assembly to consider legislative proposals presented by a petition containing at least 10,000 registered voters. But nothing of the magnitude of the reforms proposed in this petition has ever been attempted.

Earlier this week, the Cuban government released from prison Vladimiro Roca Antunez, one of Cuba's best-known dissidents. It apparently was a conciliatory gesture from the Castro government before Carter's visit.


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