Former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba last week was a mixed blessing for the Bush Administration. Although Carter's call for greater openness and his defense of human rights were well received in Washington and South Florida, his opposition to the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba was a big negative for President Bush and the State Department.
Without doubt, Carter is our favorite ex-president because of his indefatigable support for humanitarian causes around the world, including Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the poorest of the poor. And his Atlanta-based Carter Center has worked tirelessly for world peace for more than 20 years. Nevertheless, we should remember that he was a one-term president who lost to Ronald Reagan in a 1980 landslide.
I met Jimmy Carter three times during my Foreign Service career and liked him a lot. We made the press arrangements for his state visit to Madrid, Spain, during the 1980 presidential campaign and I saw him later in Lima, Peru, and Caracas, Venezuela. I remember standing alongside him as security officers escorted two Latin American dictators -- Cuba's Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- to a meeting in a Caracas hotel. Carter was unfailingly polite and considerate to others, and even claimed to remember me from previous encounters.
That's why I take no particular pleasure in noting that the United States has only one president at a time, and that some of Carter's ad hoc foreign policy efforts, like last week's trip to Cuba, can have negative repercussions for U.S. foreign policy. He has been unhelpful in recent years by opposing the Gulf War and criticizing President Bush's conduct of the War Against Terrorism. And now, he wants to lift the economic embargo against Cuba. I have serious doubts about that idea.
Just before Carter went to Cuba, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton disclosed the U.S. belief that "Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological weapons research and development effort." But Carter, after visiting one biotechnology laboratory in Havana selected by Castro, took issue with Bolton's allegation. The former president said he had asked U.S. intelligence officials about Cuba's biological weapons capability and had been told that there is no evidence "that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on earth that could be used for terrorist purposes."
The Bush Administration fired back immediately. Secretary of State Colin Powell backed his undersecretary and said he didn't know who had briefed Carter. "We stand by every word of John Bolton's speech," added Otto J. Reich, the Cuban-American assistant secretary of state for Latin America. Because I was Reich's public affairs officer while he served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 to 1989, I can assure you that there'll be no rapprochement with Cuba as long as Reich remains in office.
A fervent anti-Communist who hates Castro, Reich was the State Department's principal spokesman for the Nicaraguan "Contras" during the mid-1980s, and he's a good friend of Reagan White House Contra mastermind (if that's the right word) Col. Oliver North.
After contradicting the State Department by denying the biological weapons charges against Cuba, Carter scored points with the Department and the Bush White House with his televised address to the Cuban people last Tuesday. Speaking in Georgia-accented Spanish, and with Castro in the audience, the former president urged Cuba to "join the community of democracies" and endorsed the "fundamental right" of Cubans to seek changes in the country's laws through direct elections, something Castro has rejected for more than 40 years.
Carter also praised the so-called Varela Project, a petition drive that gathered more than 11,000 signatures from a group of dissidents demanding new freedoms in Cuba. At the same time, he called on the United States to "take the first step" toward better relations by lifting the long-standing trade embargo against Cuba. "It's time for us to change our relationship and the way we think and talk about each other," Carter said. With that, he managed to offend both Bush and Castro in the same speech.
Castro certainly didn't do Carter any favors while the latter was president. It was Castro, after all, who sent thousands of Cuban criminals and mental defectives to South Florida during Carter's presidency. And Castro is still one of the world's major human rights violators, keeping thousands of dissidents behind bars.
Anyone who doubts this fact should read the best-selling 1986 book, "Against All Hope," written by former political prisoner Armando Valladares, who detailed the persecution and torture suffered by such prisoners that continues to this day.
What are the chances that Carter's trip will actually improve U.S.-Cuba relations? Very slim, because President Bush knows that a get-tough policy with Castro is good politics, especially in Florida. Without the Cuban-American vote, Bush might well have lost Florida in 2000 and he'd be sitting in Austin, Texas, now instead of the Oval Office.
Bush also knows that any tolerant policy toward Cuba could cost his brother, Jeb, reelection as governor of Florida this fall. Which explains why White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that "the trade embargo is a vital part of America's foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba ...." And that's that!
So the net result of ex-President Carter's trip to Cuba will be to stimulate discussion of U.S.-Cuba relations without effecting any real change. To quote Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, Carter's visit gave Castro something that he wanted, a headline that read "Former U.S. President Calls for End of Embargo." But it also gave "a major push to Cuba's courageous human rights movement," and that made Jimmy's Excellent Adventure more than worthwhile.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.