“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.”