Bush Administration Leans on Carter to Press Castro

With Jimmy Carter due to visit Cuba on Sunday, the State Department is asking him to tell President Fidel Castro that it's time for a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy.

The former president also should urge Cuban officials respect their people's freedoms of speech, assembly and choice of leaders, department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

During his five-day stay, Carter will meet with government officials and visit health care and educational facilities and a farm cooperative. A dinner meeting with Castro is set for Sunday.

Carter, the first U.S. president in or out of office to visit Cuba since the end of Castro's revolution in 1959, was a strong advocate of protection of human rights during his presidency and is expected to raise that issue during his visit.

He plans to spend part of next Thursday, his last full day in Cuba, meeting with human rights and religious groups. A dissident group has been collecting signatures for a petition aimed at forcing the government to allow greater freedom.

It delivered 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly on Friday, 1,020 more than the number required to mandate a referendum. The petition drive has faced government harassment since last year.

Carter has said he will use his visit to seek an easing of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and of travel restrictions.

"That's the best way to bring about change, and not to punish the Cuban people themselves by imposing an embargo on them, which makes Castro seem to be a hero because he is defending his own people against the abuse of Americans," he told a television interviewer recently.

The Bush administration has promised to maintain the embargo. It believes providing economic benefits to Cuba could prolong what it considers a failed regime and enable Castro to devote more resources to anti-American activities.

Last Monday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton accused Cuba of using its expertise in biotechnology to undertake research for biological weapons and to pass along its know-how to potential U.S. enemies in the Middle East.

Ironically, Carter is scheduled Monday to visit a biotechnology institute in Havana.

President Bush and Carter come at the Cuba issue from different perspectives. Bush heads perhaps the most anti-Cuban administration since President Reagan threatened to go to war with Cuba in 1981 because of its support for leftist movements in Central America.

The administration is undertaking a policy review to determine the degree to which Cuba damages American interests.

Carter, along with many in Congress, believes the 4-decades-old embargo plays into the hands of hard-liners in Cuba who don't want change. Carter supports moves on Capitol Hill to ease restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba.

Carter has spent considerable time preparing for the visit. He has been briefed by a State Department official and by a representative of Cuba's diplomatic mission in Washington. He also has received a delegation from the Cuban-American National Foundation, the most powerful anti-Castro lobbying group.

Carter made clear early in his late-1970s presidency that the U.S.-Cuban estrangement had gone on too long. Barely two months after he took office, the first official exchanges took place.

In September 1977, a breakthrough of sorts occurred when the two countries opened diplomatic missions in each other's capital -- embassies in everything but name. Formal diplomatic relations had been broken 16 years earlier.

But even before the missions opened, troubling developments occurred.

Castro irritated Washington by promoting independence for Puerto Rico at the United Nations. And then there were reports of increased Cuban troop deployments in Africa.

By midautumn 1977, the normalization process was on hold, thanks largely to a campaign of sabotage led by Carter's National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezisnki, according to Wayne Smith, a former State Department official who favors normal ties with Cuba.