HAVANA – One day after Jimmy Carter was feted with the strains of the "Star-Spangled Banner'' upon his arrival in Havana, the White House urged Cuban President Fidel Castro to give the same freedoms to travel and speak to his own people as he has the former president.
"Why have one standard for a visitor and have a far worse, much more repressive standard for his own people?" asked White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Monday. "The Cuban people should be free to travel wherever they want. The Cuban people should be free to speak however they want, to worship however they want. ... That's what Fidel Castro should focus on."
Carter's arrival Sunday — the first by a U.S. head of state in or out of office since Calvin Coolidge's visit in 1928 — was marked with a reception by Castro, who noted that "it's been a long time" since the U.S. anthem was played in Cuba. The anthem was last played in 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game in Havana.
Castro told the 39th president who ordered the 1980 Cuban boat lift that allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to flee the repressive regime that he will have free access to any place he wants to go and can "express yourself freely, whether or not we agree with part of what you say, or with everything you say."
Carter's visit comes amidst a rally of claims and counter-claims between the U.S. State Department, which accuses Cuba of seeking to develop biological weapons, and Castro's denunciation of such "lies" as loathesome.
Castro said that Carter will be given complete access to any Cuban biotechnology laboratory he chooses. Carter, along with delegates from the Carter Center, visited a major laboratory Monday, the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology on the outskirts of Havana. None is a biotechnology expert. Carter has a background in science, but not in that field.
The White House is hoping that Carter will turn his attention to human rights while on his trip. Already, Carter met with two Cuban political dissidents who are coordinating a petition drive that hopes to force the Cuban government to allow greater freedom, including guarantees of individual freedoms, an amnesty for political prisoners, electoral reforms and the right to own their own businesses.
On Sunday night, a dark-suited Castro hosted Carter, wife Rosalynn, and his delegation at talks and a dinner in the Palace of the Revolution.
Speaking in Spanish, Carter told Castro that he hoped "to discuss ideals that Rosalynn and I hold dear ... peace, human rights, democracy and the alleviation of suffering."
He said there while differences exist on those issues, "we welcome the opportunity to try to identify some points in common and some areas of cooperation."
Carter will deliver a speech Tuesday that will be broadcast live on Cuban radio.
Carter, who has made a post-presidential career out of monitoring elections in developing democracies, is credited with reducing tensions with Cuba during his term of office more than any of the last 10 presidents.
As president, he oversaw the re-establishment of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries and negotiated the release of thousands of political prisoners. He also made it possible for Cuban exiles to visit relatives on the island and, for a short time, for other Americans to travel here freely.
But relations have remained cold. A U.S. trade embargo is still in place and visits by Americans are tightly limited. Carter said his attendance on the island is purely as a private citizen and he will not conduct any negotiations with government officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.