Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are back in the United States after enjoying the hospitality of Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana and visiting with Alan Gross, an American serving a 15-year sentence for giving away a satellite telephone and a laptop to Cubans. They also met with Cuban dissidents, notably mothers and wives of political prisoners and Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger who has received substantial international attention in recent months.
Of course there are already some who have expressed their outrage at what they say was President Carter’s emphasis on the need to lift the U.S. trade embargo and his “feeble efforts” to bring home Alan Gross, who Carter reports lost 88 pounds during more than 15 months in Cuban jails.
Nevertheless, the Carters should be given credit where credit is due. While the eyes of the world are focused on the struggles against dictatorship in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Carters’ journey helps remind international opinion not only about U.S.-Cuba policy but about the 52-year-old Cuban dictatorship, Havana’s political captives, and the courage of Cubans who continue to face harassment, beatings and imprisonment for their desire to bring to an end the last dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
Authors: Brandon Yoder and Aimel Wong
Former President Jimmy Carter departed Havana yesterday after a three-day visit that the Carter Center billed as an opportunity “to learn about new economic policies and the upcoming [Communist] Party Congress, and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.” However, given that U.S. development contractor Alan Gross was recently sentenced to prison for providing assistance to the island’s Jewish community, President Carter’s meeting with Jewish leaders was a clear sign that Mr. Gross’ fate is intrinsically linked to the stated purpose of the visit. Unfortunately, he left without the jailed U.S. contractor.
Mr. Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in December 2009 for distributing telephone and satellite communications equipment as part of a U.S. Government-funded democracy promotion program. He subsequently served 14 months in prison before he was charged with “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the [Cuban] state.” After a cursory, closed-door trial earlier this month, he received a 15-year prison sentence. The U.S. Government has continuously sought Alan Gross’ release and publicly stated that it is a prerequisite for any improvement in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, official channels of communication have failed, raising expectations for President Carter’s visit. Like President Clinton in his August 2009 visit to North Korea, Mr. Carter was faced with the unsavory task of appeasing an aging communist dictatorship to secure the freedom of a wrongfully imprisoned U.S. citizen.
With his 2002 visit to Cuba as precedent, President Carter was expected to use his trip to also deliver a strong message in support of greater respect for democracy and human rights, two issues that the Castro regime continues to ignore after more than 50 years in power. President Carter met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the highest ranking official of the Cuban Catholic Church. Cardinal Ortega deserves such high-profile attention for his role as an effective broker with the Cuban government in the release of more than 110 political prisoners since June 2010, including members of the March 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown. Just last week, the final prisoners from this latter group were finally released, having rejected the condition of exile to Spain that was imposed during initial negotiations.
Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba yesterday afternoon for a three-day visit to the island by invitation of the Cuban government. Carter’s travel to the island, billed as a private trip, will include meetings with Catholic and Jewish authorities as well as a meeting with Raúl Castro. The former President is expected to address U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban economic reforms and the upcoming sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba scheduled to meet from April 16 to 19.
There is also speculation that the former President will also seek to gain the release of imprisoned U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced two weeks ago to a 15-year prison term for providing satellite communication equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Authorities claim this was an attempt to provide Internet access to dissidents to destabilize the island.
This trip marks the second time Carter has visited the island and he remains the only sitting or former U.S. President to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Carter’s last trip to Cuba was in 2002 during which he pressed Cuban authorities to improve human rights and to introduce democracy. Upon his return, the President urged U.S. authorities to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. As in 2002, Carter will once again be accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn.
Yesterday, Carter met with the head of the Council of the Hebrew Community of Cuba and with Cardinal Jamie Ortega of the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana. Today, he is scheduled to visit the Belen Convent in downtown Havana followed by a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro. A press conference will be held at the Havana Palace of Conventions before returning to the United States.