BOGOTA -- Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that the United States and Syria are close to restoring full diplomatic ties, but he doubted Cuba's new openness means its leaders are ready to grant free speech or change their political system.
"I don't have much doubt that the present tentative plan of our government and the Syrian government is to re-establish diplomatic relations when it's propitious to do so," he told The Associated Press.
"I don't see any impediment to it. It will be an orderly process," Carter said in a telephone interview from Quito, Ecuador, at the start of a four-nation South American trip. "I wouldn't be surprised if it happens this year."
Carter said he planned to meet President Bashar Assad in Syria in early June after attending elections in Lebanon.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after a political assassination widely blamed on Syria -- a claim Damascus denies. Washington has long objected to Syria's support for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups as well as its alliance with Iran.
Carter said Assad is "very eager" to restore full ties with Washington. Syria has recently expressed openness to indirect peace talks with Israel as long as they focus on a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt 30 years ago during his presidency and last traveled to Lebanon and Syria in December.
On Cuba, he indicated he thinks Fidel Castro -- and not brother Raul, who succeeded Fidel as president after he fell ill in 2006 -- has the last word on the communist island.
"I think Fidel is staying as aloof as he possibly can," said the 84-year-old Carter, who has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo and last visited the island in 2002.
But Fidel also "reserves the right to come forward on a particular occasion when he feels his voice might be helpful in clarifying an issue."
"And I don't think that Raul is likely at all to depart in any substantive way from the policies that he knows that Fidel endorses."
Fidel Castro said in a newspaper column last week that President Barack Obama "misinterpreted" April 16 remarks by brother Raul in which he said Cuba was willing to discuss "everything, everything, everything," with Washington, including human rights and political prisoners.
"I don't think (Raul) was specifically talking about abolishing Cuba's restraints on assembling and freedom of speech and changing the form of government," Carter said. "He's not talking about putting that on the table."
Carter said he had not spoken to either Castro brother or to Obama since what has been widely seen as a thaw in relations.
He said he hopes Obama, who kicked off the exchange by easing restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island by Cuban-Americans, will now be aggressive in taking advantage of any opening.
"I would like to see the United States lift all travel restrictions because that only hurts the Cuban people," Carter said.
Carter said he was exploring the possibility of bringing together the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru -- with U.S. representation -- in a forum where "sensitive issues can be discussed freely."
His foundation, The Carter Center, has been attempting, so far without success, to persuade Ecuador and Colombia to restore diplomatic ties severed after Bogota's March 1, 2008 cross-border raid to attack a rebel camp run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group.