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Former President Jimmy Carter Holds Press Conference in Havana, Cuba

Aired May 17, 2002 - 10:15   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: President Carter is beginning his remarks fairly soon down in Havana, Cuba. He is there -- he has been continuing his trip there and spending time there in the country. Quite a historic trip, as a matter of fact, in the eyes of many.

Let's check in with our John Zarrella who has been covering President Carter's visit to Cuba -- hello, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Leon. It certainly has been a whirlwind five days here for the former president of the United States, wrapping it up right now with a press conference at the convention center, not far from where we are here, just a few blocks away.

His five-day trip certainly was punctuated by one major event after another. The big event Tuesday evening, when he spoke at the University of Havana for about 20 minutes, speaking entirely in Spanish, speaking live on radio and television to the 11 million plus people here in Cuba.

And he did talk about some things that had do with the differences between the two countries, about human rights issues, about how the two countries had to come together. And interestingly enough, the very next day, "Granma," the Communist Party newspaper, came out with their issue. And they only pointed out the things that President Carter said that were bad about the United States, but not the things he was critical about in Cuba. Well, yesterday "Granma" printed the entire text of Jimmy Carter's speech to the people from the University of Havana.

Yesterday, another major event, a free day for former President Jimmy Carter where he met with not one, but two dozen dissidents here on the island, many of those people are very outspoken, have been very outspoken against the government. One, Vladimir Roca just a couple of weeks ago released from prison after being in prison for nearly five years for his speaking out against the Castro government here, which is a crime under Cuban law.

Also there, Oswaldo Paya, who is considered the coordinator of what has become somewhat public and even controversial, Varela Project as they call it, where they gathered 11,000 signatures of Cuban people who want to see change in this country. And they presented that petition to the Castro government, and by Cuban law, the government has to at least look at it and consider it. It doesn't mean they necessarily have to do anything about it.

The Castro government has continued to say the project has been sponsored and funded by outside sources, and it is not a homegrown movement. The people with the Varela Project insist it is absolutely homegrown.

During his visit here, of course, the president also -- the former president took time to go to a baseball game with Fidel Castro. The two men enjoying an evening out. Former President Carter throwing out five pitches. Fidel Castro himself also throwing a pitch. The former president got see hospitals. He got to see agricultural co- ops, how they work here.

So certainly, he has a much better perspective now on the issues that face the people from having talked with dissidents, their concerns, and in fact he told the dissidents at those meetings yesterday that they need to be able to work more closely together. There shouldn't be divisions and divisiveness within the different dissident groups here. That they would be more effective if they could work together.

So all in all, a very positive trip, a very -- at least that's what Jimmy Carter is likely to be saying during his press conference. And certainly from the standpoint of the people here on this communist island, they got to see and hear from an American president.

Now we are going to take you to former President Jimmy Carter's press conference.


JAMES CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... government-operated markets with practically no people there.

I believe that we've been able to have adequate discussions with no restraints at all on religious leaders -- Protestant, Jewish, Catholic -- and with dissidents who have been open in their expressions of concern or desire to see changes made in the system of government here, many of whom have been imprisoned for their outspoken words and actions. They've been completely free to meet with me. And so, we've had long exchanges with them.

There's been no restrictions placed on my movements. We traveled to several places quite distant from Havana and the government has not tried to interfere at all in our itinerary.

So overall, I've been pleased with my trip. I recognized far in advance that after 43 years of misunderstanding and animosity that one brief trip could not change the basic relationships between our peoples. But my hope is that in some small way at least our visit might improve that situation in the future.

Now I'd be glad to answer any questions that you might put forward.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Mr. President Carter, we have come to hear a message of peace. And does the party group in the United States favor a flexiblization (inaudible) Cuba. However, the American press says that on the 20th President Bush is going to reiterate -- or will make his policy against Cuba tougher. What message will you carry to the American people and to the government of the United States? Thank you.

CARTER: Well, I've read very few press reports since I -- probably on Saturday, immediately after I returned, a complete report of my trip went to the White House and to the State Department expressing my opinion, including the opinions of the dissident groups about U.S. policy toward Cuba, and it may be that President Bush would consider those opinions, but I don't have any authority in coming here.

And the basic message that I will present is the one that I just described to you in my opening remarks of gratitude for the hospitality, a description of some of the progress that we've made and access to the Cubans and meeting with high leaders and the hope that in the future relations might be improved.

CARTER: I'll refrain from repeating words in my speech to the university. I presume you have those. I still believe that every word in that speech was accurate, and it certainly was a true expression of my own feelings. And so, I'll maintain that basic message when I return.

HARRIS: And we're going to step away from this press conference right now. We'll continue to monitor it as it continues on in the background here. We apologize for the confusion that we had there with the various audio tracks, but as you can understand between a press there speaking in one language, and the president speaking in another one, and a number of circuits carrying all the different languages, it's kind of tough to keep everything straight.

What we'll do is we will keep our John Zarrella and our Kate Snow who are down there in Havana, and with their eyes and ears on the press conference. We'll back to them later. And in fact, Kate Snow is going to check in pretty soon. She has got something very interesting I am sure you will enjoy, a one-on-one interview with President Carter. That's coming up during the 11:00 hour in the east here, and that will be 8:00 a.m. in the west, and we'll have that interview with Kate Snow and President Carter one-on-one coming up next hour. We want you to stay tuned for that.


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