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Carter in Cuba amid heightened US-Havana tension

/ 09:15 AM March 29, 2011

HAVANA—Former US president Jimmy Carter launched a three-day mission in Cuba on Monday aimed at easing tensions with Havana, and raising hopes a jailed US government contractor may be freed.

Carter, 86, is visiting the communist-run island at the invitation of the Cuban government for talks to help improve strained relations between Washington and Havana.

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The Carter Center said the former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was visiting as part of a “private, nongovernmental mission.”

But officials have said Carter was asked by Washington to intercede in the case of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, serving a 15-year jail term.

Gross was sentenced by a Cuban court earlier this month after being convicted, following a brief trial, of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba.

Carter, who also visited Cuba in 2002, is the most important US political figure to visit the communist-ruled island during the nearly half-century old American economic embargo.

Wearing a white open-necked shirt and accompanied by his wife Rosalynn, Carter was greeted at the airport by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as the couple’s arrived at 1440 GMT.

Also present at the arrival were the heads of the interests sections of both countries, Cuba’s Jorge Bolanos and Jonathan Farrar of the United States, AFP journalists said.

Carter is due to meet Tuesday with President Raul Castro, the foreign ministry said.

There are also plans for Carter to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, who had a major hand in the release over the past few months of dozens of imprisoned Cuban dissidents.

And the former US leader is expected to hold a news conference before leaving Cuba on Wednesday.

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US diplomats expressed hope last week that the former president, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, could use his influence to prod Havana into releasing Gross.

The 61-year-old contractor was arrested in December 2009 for delivering laptops and communications devices to Cuba’s small Jewish community.

The Carter Center – a Georgia-based nonprofit organization founded by the former president – issued a statement last week announcing the trip, but it made no mention of the Gross case.

US officials in Havana made clear however that Washington would welcome his help.

“We’re hoping that he will talk with the Cuban government to ask for a humanitarian release and if the Cuban government could please consider it, hopefully immediately,” Molly Koscina, spokeswoman for the US diplomatic mission in Havana, told AFP Friday.

The Carter Center said the ex-president also wanted to learn about Cuba’s planned economic overhaul, which calls for major layoffs from the public sector and new rules allowing small-scale private enterprise.

“The trip is a follow-up to their May 2002 visit to Cuba. It is being undertaken as a private, nongovernmental mission under the auspices of the not-for-profit Carter Center,” it said.

The center also said it would “discuss ways to improve US-Cuba relations.”

Carter, who was US president from 1977-1981, visited Cuba in 2002 where he met with then-president Fidel Castro, the country’s revolutionary leader. He called at the time for an end to the US embargo on the island.

He also called on the regime to allow UN human rights officials to visit Cuba, and publicly praised the Varela Project, a pro-democracy petition calling for a referendum on increased freedom of expression and amnesty for political prisoners.

Carter met during that visit with leading Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez. That year, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of work seeking to end conflicts and advance human rights.

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