“I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba,” Jimmy Carter proclaimed in a secret Presidential Directive shortly after taking office in 1977. With that signed order Carter became the first and only US President to make a rapprochement with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government an explicit goal of US foreign policy. Although his Administration succeeded in negotiating the creation of “interest sections” in Havana and Washington, Carter’s objective “to set in motion a process which will lead to the reestablishment of [full] diplomatic relations” eventually fell victim to the cold warriorism of his national security advisers.

Twenty-five years later, when Carter became the first US President to travel to Cuba, meet Castro and address the Cuban people, he again called for normalization of relations. His historic five-day visit, May 12-17, has dramatically renewed the national debate on US policy toward Cuba.

What the former President described as “an opportunity to explore issues of mutual interest” has mobilized almost every conceivable interest group–commercial, political, humanitarian–across the ideological span on a gamut of contentious issues relating to Washington’s approach to Havana. As the Pope did during his visit to Cuba in 1998, Carter has astutely managed to simultaneously draw attention to the archaic nature of the forty-year US embargo on trade and travel, to the merits of civil dialogue, and to human rights and democracy.

Carter’s trip was carefully scripted to balance competing political interests as well as his own multifaceted personal agenda. Before he announced his travel plans, Carter dispatched emissaries to Washington to discuss with numerous NGO and lobbyist organizations the merits of such a visit; he then received a comprehensive intelligence briefing from the Bush Administration and a steady flow of delegations and specialists at the Carter Center in Atlanta, who shared their expertise on Cuban issues. Pro-dialogue coalitions like the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund issued statements signed by numerous grassroots organizations in “full support [of Carter’s] initiative for dialogue.” The rabidly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation criticized him for entering into “discussions with the Cuban regime, thereby giving [it] a measure of legitimacy.”

In Cuba, Carter’s schedule included three meetings with Castro, two state dinners, a baseball game and visits to Havana’s most prestigious schools, laboratories and hospitals, as well as meetings with Cuba’s leading dissident, Elizardo Sánchez, and Oswaldo Paya, the organizer of the Varela Project–a petition drive to reform political and economic structures. Most significant, in a live nationally televised address to Cuban citizens from the University of Havana, Carter carefully underscored the themes of changing both US policy and Cuba’s socialist political system. US-Cuban relations, he said, had been “trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for forty-two years,” and he called on Washington to “take the first step” by lifting the embargo on trade and travel. At the same time, he called for the “fundamental right” of free speech and association in Cuba, and for Cubans to be allowed to “exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote.”

For the Cuban government, what Carter said was far less important than the spirit of recognition and mutual respect in which he said it. As the only one of the ten US Presidents Castro has faced over the past forty-three years who has come to the island, Carter got the red carpet treatment–symbolic and real. A Cuban band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he arrived, and Castro made it clear that there were no conditions on his visit. “You can express yourself freely whether or not we agree with part of what you say or with everything you say,” Castro stated in the reception ceremony at the airport.

When Castro first issued his invitation to Carter to visit Cuba, in October 2000, George Bush had not yet been elected. Now, with a White House that, as the Wall Street Journal recently described it, “sees a President whose bacon was saved in Florida in 2000 by the Cuban-American vote,” Carter’s trip has taken on a whole new political cast. Since the Administration could not find any grounds to block his visit, it tried to undercut Carter by sending Under Secretary of State John Bolton to the Heritage Foundation to proclaim, “Cuba’s threat to our security has been underplayed” and to allege that Castro had “a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort” that Cuba was sharing with “rogue states.” Carter exposed this canard, and infuriated the Administration, by using his visit to Cuba’s leading biotech facility, on May 13, to share the results of his pre-travel US intelligence briefing with Cuban scientists and the US press corps: He had asked the CIA if there was any evidence that Cuba was sharing any information that could be used for terrorism, “and the answer from our experts on intelligence was no.”

The Bush Administration clearly fears the impact of Carter’s trip. In an effort at damage control, the White House promptly scheduled a speech in Miami on May 20, at a fundraiser for brother Jeb’s re-election campaign, in which President Bush will express his presidency’s hostile policy toward the Cuban government and, lest US citizens get ideas from the Carter visit, outline plans to further restrict travel to Cuba.

In tact and in substance, the Carter trip stands in stark contrast to Bush’s political diatribe. His visit cannot help but contribute to the momentum on Capitol Hill, and throughout the country, to rethink Washington’s retrograde approach to Havana. This past fall Cuba made its first cash purchase of US foodstuffs in forty years. As trade barriers are slipping, a bipartisan coalition in Congress–the Cuba Working Group, led by Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake–has organized a task force to begin breaking up the embargo piece by piece. Its first focus is on an amendment to the Treasury appropriations bill to free travel to the island–legislation that is likely to get a significant boost from front-page New York Times photos of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter walking through charming Old Havana.

“The point is that engagement is more likely to encourage Cuba in the direction of reforms than unrelenting confrontation,” says Wayne Smith, who served as the Carter Administration’s first chief of the new US interest section in Havana from 1977 to 1981. That point is obviously lost on Bush. But it isn’t lost on his predecessor in the Oval Office–or on the majority of Americans, who believe that diplomatic dialogue is far more likely to advance US interests than pandering to a constituency in Florida to get the President’s brother re-elected as governor.