Cuban Exiles Find Something to Praise in Carter's Speech

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

( - Former president Jimmy Carter criticized Cuba's restrictive government in an unprecedented speech to that nation Tuesday evening, and he also said it's time for the U.S. to end its longstanding trade embargo against Cuba.

"Our two nations have been trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for 42 years, and it is time for us to change our relationship," Carter said in the speech broadcast on Cuban national television.

"Because the United State is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step." Those steps, Carter said, should include "unrestricted travel between the United States and Cuba" and an end to the U.S. embargo.

While Cuban leader Fidel Castro agrees with Carter on that point, he was less enthusiastic about Carter's other comments on democracy. Carter told the Cuban people, "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."

Carter also praised the Varela Project, a grass-roots effort in Cuba to win greater freedom for the Cuban people. "When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country," Carter said.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro invited Carter to speak freely, and the former president did so in what one wire report called heavily accented Spanish.

The Cuban-American National Foundation, an exile group opposed to the Castro regime, praised Carter for mentioning the Varela Project in his speech.

According to CANF Executive Director Dennis Hays, that was "the single most important thing he did." Hays was also pleased that Carter told the Cuban people they are entitled to certain democratic freedoms.

But President Bush told reporters at the White House Tuesday that Carter's trip hasn't changed his administration's policy toward Cuba.

"I appreciate President Carter's focus on human rights. I think that's important in Cuba, in a place where there is no human rights," said the President.

"It doesn't complicate my foreign policy because I hadn't changed my foreign policy. And that is that Fidel Castro is a dictator and he is repressive. And he ought to have free elections. And he ought to have a free press. And he ought to free his prisoners. And he ought to encourage free enterprise," the President said.

Bush also said his message to the Cuban people and Fidel Castro is, "Demand freedom and you've got a president who stands with you. And my message to Fidel Castro is precisely what I said. I'm going to deliver that message next Monday here (at the White House) and then I'm going down to Miami for Cuban Independence Day."

Monday is Cuban Independence Day, an event celebrated by Cubans living outside their homeland. It recognizes Cuba's independence from Spain.

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