Via IPS News
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Mar 30, 2011 (IPS) – During former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s three-day visit to Cuba, which ended Wednesday, the main problems to be resolved in order to reduce tension and move towards an eventual improvement in relations between the two countries were put on the table.
Among the priorities mentioned by Carter shortly before his departure was the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence handed down by a Cuban court this month, and of the five Cubans in prison in the U.S. since 1998.
He clarified, however, that “I did not come here with the idea of arranging any kind of swap” involving Gross and the so-called Cuban Five.
Carter flew in to Havana Monday on a “private mission” in response to an official invitation by President Raúl Castro, who reiterated that he is willing to talk to Washington about anything and everything, including human rights, but on equal terms, without conditions, and in an atmosphere of “complete respect” for Cuba’s independence and sovereignty.
“I hope we can contribute to better relations between the two countries,” Carter said in a press conference Wednesday, adding that many things could be done to normalise ties.
On the third day of his visit, Carter met with former President Fidel Castro – who he said “seems to be in good health” – with dissidents, former political prisoners and bloggers who are critical of the Cuban government, and with Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced this month on charges of “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”
At the time of his arrest, Gross was working for a Maryland-based firm, Development Alternatives, as a subcontractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programme to promote democracy in Cuba.
He was arrested as he prepared to fly back to the U.S. at the end of his fifth visit – on a tourist visa – to Cuba in nine months. Cuban authorities say he illegally brought in satellite communications equipment to distribute to dissident groups, as part of the programme financed by USAID.
Carter said Gross has lost 40 kilos since his arrest, and added that “He still seems to be in good spirits, professing his innocence.”
The former U.S. president said Gross does not pose a serious threat to the Cuban government or people. He also said the 61-year-old contractor plans to appeal his conviction, and that if it fails, “perhaps in the future an executive order might be issued to grant him a pardon, a release, on humanitarian grounds.”
But he stressed that he did not come to Cuba to take Gross home with him. “The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted,” he said.
He also emphasised that he did not come with the idea of arranging an exchange of Gross for any of the Cuban Five – Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González – who are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to double life in maximum security prisons in the U.S. on charges of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder.
“I think the two cases…are completely separate” and different, Carter said.
The five Cuban agents had infiltrated anti-Castro Cuban-American exile groups that had a history of violent attacks against Cuba.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions declared in 2005 that the deprivation of liberty of the five men was arbitrary and urged the U.S. government to take steps to remedy the situation.
According to Carter, Gross should be freed because he is “innocent of any serious crime,” and further incarceration of “the so-called Cuban five is unwarranted,” as they have already spent 12 years in jail and the original circumstances of their trials were considered dubious even by U.S. judges and courts.
He also called for the immediate lifting of the nearly five-decade-old embargo against Cuba, saying “I think one serious mistake that my country continues to make is the trade embargo.”
In addition, he called for the scrapping of all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. tourists and of all limits on the transfer of humanitarian funds from the U.S.
He said he would personally like the Helms-Burton Act, signed in 1996 by then President Bill Clinton, to be revoked, because any effort to improve the lives of the Cuban people by means of financial aid or other means is suspicious or illegal under that law, whose aim is to bring the Castro regime to an end.
Carter called the law “counterproductive,” the same term he used to describe the hard-line stance taken by the Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress, who he said actually punish the Cuban people, rather than the government, with their restrictions.
The 2002 Nobel Peace Prize-winner said Washington should take Cuba off its list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and that its inclusion on the list was “completely unfounded” and based on “untrue allegations.”
He confirmed that on his return, he would give President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a report on his visit, which he said would reflect the issues discussed in the news briefing as well as “confidential” matters.
Carter also visited Cuba in 2002, invited by then President Fidel Castro, who met him and saw him off at the airport and accompanied him during much of his week-long visit on that occasion. The former U.S. leader met with dissidents on that trip as well.
He is the only former U.S. president to set foot in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.
Berta Soler, the wife of former political prisoner Angel Moya and one of the members of the Ladies in White who took part in Carter’s meeting with dissidents, told IPS that he had asked for privacy about the meeting. “It was short, but very good…we gave him a report with details on the prisoners on whose behalf we are advocating.”
On Monday, Carter met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, saying he was pleased about the progress the Catholic Church has made in its talks with the government, which helped secure the release of more than 100 Cuban prisoners over the last few months.
Although the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba 50 years ago, interests sections were established in Washington and Havana during Carter’s 1977-1981 government.
Cuban academic Esteban Morales, who specialises in Cuban-U.S. relations, said Carter “is the most important personality from his country to visit the island in over half a century.”
He also said the former U.S. president “is a public figure of prestige and ethics, and the best-placed to help Obama understand (the situation of the Cuban Five) and the importance of the issue. Resolving that case would benefit the internal and external image of the United States.”
Morales said it was very important for Carter to obtain a first-hand perspective of the situation in Cuba, including the economic reforms that have begun to be implemented.