Castro opens doors wide for Carter
Cuban leader grants ex-president 'free access'
HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Longtime American adversary and Cuban President Fidel Castro welcomed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Havana with open arms and an open mind Sunday, saying Carter could speak with anyone, "even if they do not share our struggles."
"You will have free access to any place that you may wish to see, and we will not feel offended for any contact that you may wish to establish," Castro said soon after Carter's plane touched down in Havana late Sunday morning.
Carter's five-day visit marks the first time an American president -- sitting or former -- has come to the Caribbean island since Calvin Coolidge in January 1928.
After leaving Jose Marti Airport, the 77-year-old human rights advocate toured the Old Havana section of the Cuban capital.
He and his wife, Rosalynn, later met with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and planned to attend a state dinner with Castro Sunday night. Later in the week, Carter will meet with other officials and opposition leaders.
Relations between the two nations deteriorated when communist revolutionaries led by Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed government in 1959.
In more than four decades since, tensions have been ignited by numerous incidents and personalities, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Mariel boatlift to the Elian Gonzalez saga.
Carter's visit, approved if not explicitly supported by the Bush administration, comes at yet another tenuous period in U.S.-Cuban relations.
U.S. farmers and businesses have joined Castro in asking Washington to end the 41-year-old embargo against Cuba, which Congress relaxed in recent years by allowing trade in food and medicine.
President Bush, however, is preparing to toughen his strategy for dealing with Castro, CNN has learned. Bush will deliver a speech next week outlining the United States' policy toward Cuba and then travel to Miami to honor Cuban Independence Day, aides told CNN. (Full story)
The White House has criticized Cuba's human rights record and accused the country of producing and marketing biological weapons to nations the United States says are sponsors of terrorism.
Castro, 75, alluded to the latter accusation, made by a senior Bush administration official last week, in his welcoming speech Sunday.
The Cuban leader granted Carter "full access [to] prestigious scientific research centers ... accused of producing biological weapons."
Carter's term an anomaly in U.S.-Cuban relations
Even with their warm words Sunday, on the face of it Castro and Carter are an odd couple.
Since leaving the White House in 1981, Carter has dedicated himself to safeguarding human rights, resolving conflicts and enhancing democracies worldwide.
U.S. administrations have long vilified Castro as an insular, authoritarian ruler who preserves his power at the expense of his people.
Bernardo Benes, who carried out secret diplomatic missions for Washington in Cuba between 1977 and 1986, said that Castro frequently expressed his sincere respect for Carter's "moral and religious values."
Relations between Washington and Havana improved early in the Carter administration, starting with the creation of a U.S. Interests Section in Havana in 1977, the first official U.S. representation in the Cuban capital since diplomatic ties were cut 16 years earlier.
Carter hammered out deals allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba once a year and expediting the return of American citizens and dual nationals from Cuba to the United States.
Castro, in what Benes called a goodwill gesture to Carter, released 3,600 political prisoners from Cuban jails in 1978.
But U.S.-Cuban relations suffered a setback two years later when more than 100,000 Cubans boarded a chaotic flotilla of boats in Mariel, Cuba, and headed to Florida with Castro's blessing -- catching the U.S. Coast Guard and Carter by surprise.
While acknowledging the rivalry between Cuba and the United States, Castro singled out Carter for his initiatives to lessen tensions and improve relations.
"In the four years of your tenure as president, you had the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations," Castro told Carter in his welcome, according to The Associated Press. "That is why those of us who were witnesses to that attitude see you with respect."
'President Carter represents the future'
Inside Cuba, the run-up to Carter's visit was marked by several human rights gestures from Havana.
The Cuban government freed from prison Vladimiro Roca Antunez, one of Cuba's best-known political dissidents.
And Friday, Projecto Varela, an illegal but tolerated Christian liberation movement, sent 11,020 petitions to the National Assembly calling for a national referendum on free speech, free assembly, political prisoners, private business ownership and democratic elections.
The Cuban Constitution requires the National Assembly to consider legislative proposals presented by a petition with the names of at least 10,000 registered voters.
While few expect the reforms to be enacted, Project Varela's ability to collect the signatures was a notable development.
Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban assembly, expressed hopes that Carter's visit could drastically improve U.S.-Cuban relations.
"President Carter represents the future, a day when there will be a mutual respect and a good neighbor policy between the U.S. and Cuba, a future with a policy based on certain moral and ethical values," Alarcon said.
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