Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
to Cuba, March 28-30, 2011
April 1, 2011
At the invitation of President Raul Castro, Rosalynn and I visited
Havana on behalf of The Carter Center, accompanied by John Hardman,
Jennifer McCoy, Robert Pastor, Melissa Montgomery, John Moores, and
The goals of our trip were to:
become acquainted with President Raul Castro and to ascertain his
immediate and long-term goals for Cuba. The Party Congress will convene
in April (on the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs) and Cubans will
adopt plans for economic and social reforms;
explore ideas on how United States-Cuba relations might be improved;
visit with key players in government and independent sectors; and
learn as much as possible about the cases of the Cuban Five
prisoners in the U.S. and Alan Gross in Cuba.
Prior to the trip I had conversations with Secretary of State Clinton,
National Security Advisor Donilon, and Judy Gross.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between policies of Cuba and the
U.S., based on more than half a century of efforts by leaders in
Washington to disrupt and bring about changes in the communist regime of
Fidel and Raul Castro.
An economic embargo continues against Cuba, codified into law by the
Helms-Burton Act passed during the Clinton administration. Activities or
funds expended under its auspices, as expressed officially in the Act,
and also assumed by Cubans, are limited to democracy promotion programs
designed to weaken and overthrow the Castro regime. Such U.S. activities
are authorized by U.S. law and considered a crime against the state by
Except for certain causes (academic, journalistic, or religious) and
Cuban-American families, American citizens are deprived of the right to
The Cubans know that, as president, I lifted all travel restraints and
made strides toward normalizing diplomatic relations. This included the
establishment of Interest Sections in Havana and Washington, through
which a modicum of diplomatic exchange could be conducted.
We were met at the airport by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban
Interest Section Chief Jorge Alberto Bolaños, and U.S. Chief of Mission
Jonathan Farrar. I rode to our hotel with the foreign minister, who
acknowledged some positive steps taken by the Obama administration
(which I enumerated in detail), but maintained that the overall impact
of recent policies had been very damaging to Cuba, primarily because of
a tightening of financial transactions through foreign banks. Also, the
continuing Helms-Burton program for "democracy promotion," which is a
regime change strategy funded at $20 million, remains a serious source
Our first briefing was at the U.S. Interest Section, where I also spoke
to the assembled staff (in Spanish and English). We were surprised at
the size of the staff – 50 Americans and 270 Cubans. There seems to be
minimal direct contact between American diplomats and top Cuban officials.
We next had a delightful visit with leaders of the Cuban Jewish
community. Although there is no rabbi in Cuba, the 1,500 Cuban Jews have
a lively religious and social agenda. They say they have complete
freedom to worship and adequate internet communication with the outside
world, and that they had no substantive contact with Alan Gross.
Our next meeting was with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who explained the
procedure by which the Cuban government permitted the release of the
remaining 52 of the original 75 political prisoners incarcerated since
March 2003 plus an additional 74 others over the last six months. Twelve
of them were permitted to remain in Cuba and the others were exiled to
Spain. The Cardinal also gave us a briefing on the status of the various
religious groups in Cuba.
Rosalynn, Jennifer, and I had an extensive private session with Foreign
Minister Rodriguez, who repeated much of our previous conversation and
concentrated on the case of Alan Gross, who was arrested, tried, and
convicted on his fifth visit to Cuba for "acts against the independence
of the state." Under a USAID subcontract, he was in possession of
equipment designed to enhance internet communication, ostensibly for the
benefit of the Cuban Jewish community, using funds under the
Helms-Burton Act. (I had been informed by the Cubans that American
prisoner Alan Gross would not be released during my visit, but believe
that this is a possibility after his appeals process is completed.)
In our breakfast meeting with ambassadors from Spain, Canada, Hungary,
Mexico, UN, EU, Sweden, Brazil and Colombia, they reaffirmed what the
Foreign Minister had said about the adverse effect on their banks and
their movement of funds into Cuba as a result of new and more severe
U.S. banking restrictions.
We raised a question about the terrorist list, and the Ambassadors from
Spain and Colombia said they were not concerned about the presence of
members of FARC, ETA, and ELN in Cuba. Indeed, they maintained that this
enhances their ability to deal more effectively with these groups. In
fact, ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.
We then had an extensive briefing on Cuban economic policy by Oswaldo
Martinez, President of the National Assembly Economic Commission. He
described Cuba's current problems and outlined steps being taken or
contemplated for "cautious progress" toward reductions in state control
over farming, trade, and services. Now, for instance, only about 50
percent of arable land is used, and idle land is being made available to
private families on leases for "indefinite time." Several hundred
thousand other citizens are being encouraged to adopt private means of
After visiting an enormous senior citizens center we had lunch with
National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who further described the
goals of the impending Congress assembly of about 1,000 people. He
stated that more than 2/3 of the proposed paragraphs had been amended to
accommodate suggestions from citizens.
We then met with two mothers and three wives of the "Cuban Five," who
have now been incarcerated for more than twelve years. Their trial in
the highly charged Miami political climate was considered to be biased
by a U.S. appellate court, but subsequent appeals have been denied. Top
Cuban officials claim they had personal assurance from President Clinton
that there would be no more small plane flights over Havana, and that
the U.S. was warned that no more "violations of Cuban sovereignty" would
be permitted. Despite this, the small plane repeated its mission and was
shot down. These officials claimed that the member of the Cuban 5 who
was convicted of murder of the plane's crew could not have been involved.
Rosalynn, Jennifer, and I then had an extensive meeting with President
Raul Castro, where we covered again many of the same economic and
political issues. He gave an overview of the Cuban revolution, the Bay
of Pigs incident, Cuba's often confrontational relationship with the
Soviet Union, their armed forces' involvement in Angola and other
places, his relationship with Fidel, and an outline of the speech he
will make to the Party Congress. He received well my suggestion that he
and his ministers have easier and more frequent access to foreign
diplomats. All members of our group then joined other top Cuban
officials at a supper hosted by the president.
Wednesday morning we met with a group of active dissidents, bloggers,
and others and then hosted 10 of the 12 recently released political
prisoners and their wives, who reported that they were still insisting
that those exiled to Spain be permitted to return to Cuba. They
complained about their difficulty in getting renewed ID cards and
Rosalynn and I had an extensive visit with Alan Gross in a military
hospital where he is confined. He expressed some regrets at now being
treated much better than his fellow prisoners (after earlier poorer
treatment) and said he had adequate communications with his wife and family.
We then visited Fidel in his private home and found him to be vigorous,
alert, and especially intent on monitoring voluminous media reports on
his list of prescribed subjects. His primary health problem concerned
his left knee and right shoulder, badly injured in a fall in 2004 at a
ceremony honoring Che Guevara.
Before leaving Havana, I had a press conference, a TV interview, and
another brief session with President Castro, who met me at the airport,
where I repeated my request that Mr. Gross be released and relayed
concerns I had received from the dissident groups. He promised to
investigate the concerns and report his decisions to me.
In all, I believe the basic goals of The Carter Center were realized
during the visit.
Some notes about the visit: Raul, Fidel, and other leaders are
thoroughly familiar with our political system and the special pressures
from a fading but still powerful minority of Cuban-Americans. They know
that Helms-Burton cannot be repealed, and are experts on what authority
the president has.
Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our
economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel,
trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross and the Cuban
Five, and end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom
of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full
relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul told the
press, "I agree with everything that President Carter said."