Havana — Jimmy Carter became the first current or former U.S. president to visit Cuba in 74 years, arriving here Sunday for talks with President Fidel Castro and his foes at a time when ties between the two countries are more strained than they have been in years.
"We come here as friends of the Cuban people," Carter said, delivering his arrival speech in Spanish after he was greeted at the Havana airport by Castro.
Carter, who has come seeking cooperation with Cuba, was given all the ceremony usually reserved for a visiting head of state, including a red carpet and a brass band that played the Cuban and U.S. national anthems.
All sides of the intensely emotional debate about Cuba, which has colored U.S. politics and policy since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, see it as an unprecedented opportunity to discuss Cuba's human rights record and the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo that is opposed by virtually every other country.
Carter, who is not here in any official capacity, will give a live, nationally televised speech to the Cuban people Tuesday evening. As if to make sure ordinary Cubans don't miss it, Carter mentioned the time and place of the address at Sunday's arrival ceremony, which was also televised live.
'Most comfortable we have'
Castro, wearing a gray pinstriped suit instead of his usual military fatigues, promised Carter that he would have "free and total access to anywhere you want to go," including Cuba's controversial biotech research facilities, which Carter plans to tour. Addressing Carter as "your excellency," Castro said Carter was welcome to meet with all Cubans, "even those who do not share our struggle," a reference to the dissident human rights and religious leaders Carter plans to meet with Thursday.
Castro then led Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter to a black limousine for the ride to their hotel in Old Havana, a harbor-front neighborhood of cobblestones and meticulously restored colonial buildings that Carter toured Sunday afternoon.
"It's a Soviet-made car," Castro told Carter as they walked to the limo. "It's about a hundred years old, but it's the most comfortable we have."
Carter's trip is seen as a delicate chess match between two old masters.
Castro, 75, has bedeviled 10 U.S. presidents. In 1980 Castro used comments made by Carter as a pretext for clearing out prisons and mental wards and sending 125,000 Cubans to the United States. Known as the Mariel boatlift, the crisis contributed to Carter's election loss in 1980 to Ronald Reagan.
Carter, 77, is considered an accomplished and respected statesman, having spent the past two decades involved in human rights issues, elections and conflict mediation in some of the world's most troubled spots.
Despite the Mariel incident, many historians now regard Carter's term as a progressive time in relations with Cuba. In 1977 Carter lifted travel prohibitions, which were reimposed by Reagan. Carter negotiated agreements on fishing rights and maritime boundaries and secured the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners. The two governments opened "interest sections," a step short of embassies, in each other's capitals for the first time since relations were cut by Eisenhower in January 1961.
Castro, citing "an ocean of prejudices, misinformation and distrust" in dealings between Havana and Washington, praised Carter for having "the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations."
Castro rejected suggestions from his opponents that his invitation to Carter was simply "a shrewd maneuver" with a "political purpose." Rather, Castro said, it was "deserved recognition of your attitude as president of the United States of America toward Cuba."
"Daring to try to improve relations between those two countries deserves respect," Castro said, adding that he hoped no one would "question your patriotism" for visiting Cuba.
Opponents of the U.S. embargo against Cuba hope that Carter, who has criticized it as counterproductive, will publicly call for it to be lifted.
Supporters of the embargo, which is backed by President Bush, hope Carter will focus on Castro's human rights record, including controls on freedom of speech and assembly, no free elections and the holding of an estimated 250 political prisoners.
"We are eager to see firsthand your accomplishments in health, in education and in culture," said Carter, who is the first former or sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge came in 1928. But he added that he intended to discuss with Castro, and with representatives of religious and human rights groups, "ideals that Rosalynn and I hold dear: peace, human rights, democracy and the alleviation of human suffering.
"We understand that we have differences of opinion on some of these issues," Carter said. "But we welcome the opportunity to try to identify some points in common and some areas of cooperation."
Bush's said to be angry
Bush has appointed several anti-Castro Cubans to high administration positions, and he has given passionate speeches in favor of the embargo, despite clear majorities in both houses of Congress calling for easing restrictions on travel and the sale of food and medicine to the island nation.
Bush is scheduled to deliver a speech May 20 announcing new measures against Cuba, which many analysts say are likely to include stepped-up efforts to provide cash and other help to dissidents in Cuba.
Bush is said to be angry about Carter's trip, which is also opposed by most members of the anti-Castro Cuban American lobby in Miami, a voting bloc that was key to Bush's election in 2000 and is also critical to the political fortunes of Bush's brother Jeb, the governor of Florida.