U.S.-Cuba Relations

Carter, Cuba, and the Embargo

Cubans Watch former President Jimmy Carter on TV
Students at the University of Havana watch former President Jimmy Carter address Cubans live on TV, May 14, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Both Cuba’s communist government and its domestic critics seemed hopeful that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s May 12-17 visit to Havana would give a much-needed boost to growing bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for Cuba policy reform. But Carter’s recommendation that “since the U.S. is the more powerful nation, we should take the first step” apparently failed to persuade President George W. Bush, especially with his brother Jeb Bush up for re-election as Florida’s governor this November. In a May 20 speech sure to please anti-Castro Cuban exiles—who have supported both Bushes in past elections—President Bush said that the United States wouldn’t change its policy until Cuba changed its government.

More significantly perhaps, the Bush administration has stood by its grave accusation that Cuba is producing biological weapons and sharing this deadly technology with other “rogue states,” including “axis of evil” outcasts like Iran. Such tough talk might play well in Miami, but in Havana they are greeted with a shrug as más de lo mismo—more of the same.

On May 6, less than a week before Carter’s historic visit was set to begin, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton sounded alarms in Havana when he gave a speech claiming that the United States “believes Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,” and has “provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.” Cubans didn’t need to read between the lines of Bolton’s speech to know that, in the with-us-or-against-us context of the U.S.-led “war on terrorism,” such accusations are not to be taken lightly. Titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” Bolton’s speech carried the threat that nations who do not “renounce terror and abandon WMD [weapons of mass destruction]... can expect to become our targets.”

Moreover, Cuban analysts listening to Bolton’s speech found no comfort in the fact that the Bush administration’s top Latin American policy official, Otto Reich, has long advocated U.S. military intervention to overthrow the Cuban government, or in Reich’s past as director of the now-defunct Office of Public Diplomacy during Ronald Reagan’s administration. In this capacity, Reich was a primary architect of the campaign to sway popular opinion against the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

That Cuban President Fidel Castro personally responded to Bolton’s accusations in a May 10 nationally televised speech indicates the seriousness with which the Cuban government took the allegations. Flanked by Cuban scientists and other government officials, Castro vehemently denounced Bolton’s charges as “an absolute lie,” and challenged Washington “to produce even the tiniest bit of evidence.” Castro accused Reich himself of masterminding the accusations as part “of a new campaign against Cuba or as revenge for the extraordinary failure of the fascist coup he’d planned [in Venezuela].”

Initially, Cuban officials alleged that the accusations were timed to cast a shadow on Carter’s visit. But Castro quickly turned Carter’s presence in Cuba into an opportunity both to clear Cuba’s name and to showcase Cuban achievements in biotechnology. When Castro greeted Carter at Havana’s airport May 12, he offered him “free and complete access” to Cuba’s scientific research centers “together with any specialists of your choosing.”

The next day, Carter spoke about the allegations after concluding a tour of Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. “With some degree of reluctance I would also like to comment on the allegation of bioterrorism,” Carter began. “I do this because these allegations were made, maybe not coincidentally, just before our visit to Cuba.”

Carter revealed that during extensive briefings prior to his departure, U.S. intelligence officials told him they had no evidence Cuba was producing biological weapons or aiding other countries to do so. “I asked them specifically, on more than one occasion: 'Is there any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes?’ And the answer from our experts on intelligence was ‘no,’ ” Carter said.

Carter’s statements, which were widely reported around the world, provoked some embarrassment in Washington. On May 14, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters the next day: “We didn't say [Cuba] actually had some weapons, but [that] it has the capacity and capability to conduct such research.” The Cuban government eagerly pointed out the discrepancy between his comments and Bolton’s charges. A statement from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry titled “Colin Powell Recognizes that Bolton Lied” was the May 14 headline of Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s daily newspaper. “We appreciate the efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell to help clear up what happened,” it wryly concluded.

Carter Addresses Cuban People, Touts Varela Project

But the most significant moment of Carter’s trip—an uncensored, nationally televised speech to the Cuban people held at Havana University’s Great Hall on May 14—was less of a boon to the Cuban government.

Carter’s speech criticized Cuba’s one-party state and lack of individual freedoms with a level of bluntness unprecedented in the government-controlled media. He also heavily promoted a dissident reform proposal called the Varela Project, which was virtually unheard of on the island until then. Two days later, Granma published a verbatim copy of Carter’s speech for those who missed it on TV, raising eyebrows to new heights.

Castro, who sat quietly in the front row during Carter’s address, seemed afterwards to be the least offended Cuban in the room. During the question-and-answer period that followed the speech, noticeably agitated government supporters challenged Carter’s notion of democracy and fervidly rejected the Varela Project as a foreign scheme to subvert their socialist system. Student Federation leader Hassan Pérez told Carter his mention of the Varela Project caused him “profound indignation” and said the proposal was an “infamy, an affront, a slander” to Varela’s name. But Castro simply smiled, shook Carter’s hand when it was over, and quickly whisked him off to go watch a baseball game.

The May 16, 2002 edition of Havana's Communist Party daily Granma ran former President Jimmy Carter's full speech to the Cuban people from the day before, marking the first time the Cuban press had published such extensive criticism of Cuba's one-party system.

Based upon a constitutional provision that requires the National Assembly to consider any legislative proposal backed by 10,000 or more signatures, the Varela Project is an attempt by Cuban dissidents to introduce a national referendum on a series of economic and political reforms such as small-business ownership or direct presidential elections. When asked about the project, Alejandro, a 24-year-old computer technician, summed up the skepticism that many Cubans feel about its chances for success: “Either they’ll find some legal technicality in order to dismiss it, or they’ll just say it’s a U.S. conspiracy.”

Like Carter and the recently formed bipartisan Cuba Working Group in the U.S. Congress, many dissidents in Cuba share the belief that change will come through increased contact between Cubans and Americans and new business ties. Americans are becoming a more common sight in Cuba every year, and a broad array of business and commercial interests are now beginning to back a change in U.S. foreign policy on Cuba as well, arguing that engendering closer ties has advanced U.S. interests in China and Vietnam, and that it can in Cuba. And while many hardliners in the United States say trade and tourism will only make Castro stronger, many advocates of reform point out that four decades of U.S. aggression seem to have actually helped Castro, allowing him to fashion himself as a modern-day David struggling to defend his people against an imperial Goliath only 90 miles to the north.

At a press conference on the final day of his visit, Carter argued that  U.S. policy on Cuba not only hurts Cubans, but is an infringement on Americans’ freedom as well. “I see the embargo and travel restraints as an imposition on the human rights of American citizens. I think an American private citizen or an American company should have the right to visit any place on Earth and the right to trade with any other purchaser or supplier on Earth,” he said.

But on May 20, the 100th anniversary of Cuban independence, Bush unveiled a series of new measures designed to put greater pressure on Castro’s government. Citing his personal and moral commitment to the embargo, Bush told a largely Cuban-American audience that the United States would not budge until Cuba met U.S. demands. “[Cuba’s] legacy of courage has been insulted by a tyrant who uses brutal methods to enforce a bankrupt vision. That legacy has been debased by a relic from another era who has turned a beautiful island into a prison,” he said.

In Havana, Lorena Sandoval, a 52-year-old secretary, scoffed at Bush's speech. "What has Cuba ever done to the United States?" she asked. "Cuba respects the self-determination of other countries. I think it’s a crime for the United States to continue to make the Cuban people to suffer like this."