Carter to see 'germ war' laboratories on Cuba visit

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The Independent US

Fidel Castro welcomed Jimmy Carter to Havana yesterday when he became the first former or serving American president to visit Cuba since the revolution in 1959.

Mr Castro told Mr Carter: "It is no secret that for almost a century there have not been optimal relations between the two states. However ... in the four years of your tenure as president, you had the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations.

"That is why those of us who were witnesses to that attitude see you with respect. Our country receives you and your delegation with sincere hospitality."

Mr Carter said he was delighted to return to Cuba for the first time in 47 years.

The two men's attempts to thaw US-Cuba relations for the first time since 1959 were nearly scuttled after the Bush administration last week denounced Cuba as part of a new "axis of evil" and claimed the Caribbean communists were providing germ warfare technology to rogue states. Mr Castro maintains that such charges are baseless and invited Mr Carter to inspect the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana, the laboratory where such potential "weapons of mass destruction" are purportedly manufactured.

Mr Carter pledged to meet human rights' advocates, local politicians and university students. He has emphasised that this is a private visit and he will not be negotiating with the Cuban government.

The White House and Cuban exiles hope Mr Carter will speak bluntly to his host about human rights and democracy, while Cuban officials hope their visitor will publicly condemn the trade embargo, which Mr Carter has long opposed.

The 42-year-old US trade embargo shows no signs of being eased, although some food and medical shipments have been negotiated, and Mr Castro met US network television and MTV executives last year. However, President George Bush has fined American tourists for visiting Cuba.

Critics say he is pandering to the Cuban exile community in Florida to boost his brother Jeb's political hopes in the next Florida gubernatorial elections.

Emboldened by Mr Carter's presence, some 11,000 Cuban dissidents called for an unprecedented referendum on political and economic reforms. Petitioners want to vote on basic civil liberties, from freedom of speech and amnesty for political prisoners to support for private entrepreneurs and a general election. To mark the first visit by a former or serving American head of state since Calvin Coolidge came in 1928, Cuban authorities granted the early release of Cuba's leading dissident, Vladimiro Roca, two months before the end of his five-year term.

As President, Mr Carter attempted to thaw relations with Mr Castro in the late 1970s by easing travel restrictions. Mr Castro responded by releasing hundreds of Cubans from jails and state asylums. The 125,000 Cuban refugees, many seen as undesirable criminals, who moved to Florida in the so-called Mariel boat-lift contributed to Mr Carter's 1980 election loss to Ronald Reagan.