HAVANA – Bible school teacher Jimmy Carter took to the pulpit of a little Havana church Wednesday to speak of the power of God, a day after the former president used a nationwide broadcast to call for free speech and elections on this communist island.
Carter, a deacon at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., where he has served as a Sunday school teacher for many years, said he had been blessed by serving as president, by having been married for 56 years, having four children and 11 grandchildren. "But the most important thing in my life is my faith in Jesus Christ."
Carter's talk during an enthusiastic service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church followed an hour-long meeting with more than 40 Protestant clergymen from 22 denominations.
In the evening, Carter traveled to the Palace of the Revolution where he dined for a second and final time with President Fidel Castro.
Carter's aides said Wednesday's events marked the end of his public activities. They said he would spend Thursday, his last full day in Cuba, in private pursuits. He is due to leave Cuba on Friday.
While the Roman Catholic Church is by far Cuba's largest, Protestant denominations have grown after losing most of their pastors immediately after the 1959 revolution Castro led.
While local Communist Party functionaries sometimes clash with new charismatic or Pentecostal churches that bubble up without official permission, Ebenezer's pastor, the Rev. Raul Suarez, said that 1,176 once-illegal congregations have been legalized in recent years as the government has shifted from open hostility to a wary embrace of religious organizations. Suarez said another 600 were pending.
Suarez himself is a non-communist member of Cuba's National Assembly, or parliament and his congregation on Wednesday included National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, long the chief adviser to Castro on U.S. affairs, who was accompanying Carter.
The clergymen presented Carter with a Spanish-language Bible, flowers and a painting — as well as rousing hymns during a service in his honor that ended with an English-language rendition of "We Shall Overcome."
Carter said he had read the Bible nightly in Spanish for years, and he used that language on Wednesday. He quoted St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, saying "the things that are most important of all in life" are "the things that cannot be seen, that cannot be measured."
"It is not education. It is not electricity in the house, it is not money in the bank," he said.
Instead he spoke of "cooperation, friendship, love" and said that among citizens of the United States and Cuba there should be "justice, peace, humility, service, compassion. These are very simple things, but the most important."
Earlier in the day, Carter visited social service programs, including a special education school for children, a housing construction project and a family medical clinic — the kind of efforts that Castro's communist government is proud of.
Scores of Cubans greeted Carter in the town of Frank Pais outside Havana with chants of "Car-TER! Car-TER!" when he arrived to tour a family medical clinic.
The night before, Carter told Cubans that their country does not meet international standards of democracy and repeatedly promoted a grass-roots campaign for greater civil liberties.
Cuban newspapers on Wednesday underscored Carter's criticisms of Washington's policies toward Havana, as well as his call for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, but they did not mention Carter's references to a lack of liberties.
Democracy, Carter told viewers, "is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups and to have fair and open trials."
"Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government," he added.
In Washington, the White House rejected pleas by Carter and farm-state lawmakers to lift the trade embargo and pledged an even tougher U.S. policy against Castro.
"The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of America's foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba, because trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba — it's used to prop up a repressive regime," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
The top U.S. diplomat in Havana, Vicki Huddleston, praised Carter for his "courageous" talk about civil liberties in Cuba.
"It made me so proud to hear him address the internal situation in Cuba, which is not caused by the embargo, but by the government itself," said Huddleston, chief officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Castro welcomed Carter here on Sunday with a promise that he could meet anyone, and say anything.