MIAMI – Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Havana on Monday to discuss Cuban leader Raul Castro’s economic reforms and how to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, stymied by the imprisonment of U.S. government subcontractor Alan P. Gross.
Carter is the most important U.S. figure to visit Cuba, both under Fidel Castro’s rule in 2002 and now under his younger brother Raul. The older Castro has praised Carter as the president who tried hardest to normalize U.S. relations with Havana.
Carter’s first scheduled meeting, with a leader of Cuba’s tiny Jewish community, strengthened speculation that he will push Havana to free Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence.
Gross, a 61-year-old from Potomac, Md., was arrested in late 2009 after he delivered sophisticated equipment to members of the Jewish community and other nongovernment groups so they could communicate better with each other and the outside world.
Havana officials have branded the Washington campaign to improve Cubans’ access to the Internet as a thinly disguised effort to subvert the communist government.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that any significant improvements in U.S. policies toward Cuba will not be possible until Gross is freed as a “humanitarian gesture.”
Dissidents in Havana reported that authorities arrested at least two government critics who staged a protest Monday near Havana’s Cuban Capitol to coincide with Carter’s arrival. They identified the two as Eriberto Liranza Romero and Boris Rodriguez Jimenez, both members of the Cuban Youths for Democracy Movement, and added that other dissidents had been detained Sunday night to block their participation in the protest.
Wearing a white guayabera shirt, Carter was greeted at the Havana airport by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the top U.S. and Cuban diplomats in Havana and Washington, Jonathan Farrar and Jorge Bolanos.
After his meeting with the Jewish community, Carter met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whose unprecedented talks with Raul Castro last year led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners. About 90 were freed only after they agreed to go into exile in Spain, and 12 remain in Cuba.
The former president was making the trip at the invitation of Raul Castro.