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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 07:51 GMT 08:51 UK
Lift Cuba embargo, Carter tells US
Jimmy Carter makes his speech
Jimmy Carter encouraged more political debate in Cuba
Former US President Jimmy Carter has called on America to end its 40-year economic embargo against Cuba, in an unprecedented televised address in Havana.

With President Fidel Castro looking on, Mr Carter said that the United States "should take the first step" towards improving relations between the two countries.

Your constitution recognises freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government

Jimmy Carter
He also urged President Castro to allow UN Human Rights commissioner Mary Robinson to visit Cuba and praised a project by Cuban dissidents seeking a referendum on broad political and economic reforms.

Washington has not yet officially reacted to the speech.

BBC Washington correspondent Steve Kingstone says Mr Carter could be said to have breached a long-standing political protocol whereby former presidents refrain from criticising the current administration while travelling abroad.

Cuban exiles in America welcomed Mr Carter's criticism of Cuba's political system.

Executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, Joe Garcia, said: "Fidel Castro had to sit there while he was given a speech on democracy, something the Cuban people have not been able to hear for 43 years."

Three-point plan

Mr Carter's speech - which he made in Spanish at Havana University on Tuesday - was broadcast live and uncensored on Cuban TV and radio.

Jimmy Carter (left) and Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro strongly denies being involved in biological weaponry

It came on the third day of his landmark visit to the island, which has been dominated by a row over US claims that Cuba is involved in the development of biological weapons.

The BBC's Ian Pannell, in Havana, said it was an optimistic and diplomatic speech which gave a three-point plan to improving US-Cuba relations.

First, he wanted the US - as the world's most powerful nation - to take the first step by allowing unrestricted travel and repealing the trade embargo.

Our Washington correspondent says Mr Carter's call for the lifting of the embargo directly contradicts government policy and Mr Bush won't take kindly to being told that America must make the first move if relations with Cuba are to improve.

Mr Carter also said that property disputes between Cuba and US firms and Cuban exiles should be resolved and suggested Cuban exiles could be used to bridge the gap between the two countries.

Movement for change

Mr Carter gave his support to moves by dissidents to bring about changes to Cuba's one-party communist system.

My nation is hardly perfect in human rights

Jimmy Carter

His mention of the initiative - known as the Varela Project - was the first time many Cubans had learned of the campaign.

Organisers of the project have handed in a petition bearing 11,020 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly asking for a referendum on civil liberties.

The referendum would ask voters if they are in favour of human rights, an amnesty for political prisoners, the right to have own a business and electoral reform.

"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," said Mr Carter.

Human rights

Mr Carter also touched on concerns about human rights in Cuba.

"Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates and people are not permitted to organise any opposition movements," he said.

"Your constitution recognises freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."

He added: "My nation is hardly perfect in human rights.

"A very large number of our citizens are incarcerated in prison and there is little doubt that the death penalty is imposed most harshly on those who are poor, black, or mentally ill," he said.

The BBC's Ian Pannell in Havana
"What Jimmy Carter has done in Havana is set out a roadmap to normal relations"

Cold thaw
Is it time to lift the embargo against Cuba?
See also:

15 May 02 | Americas
Carter's speech to Cubans
14 May 02 | Americas
US plays down Cuba terror link
13 May 02 | Americas
Carter brings Cubans hope
13 May 02 | Americas
Cuba opens up for Carter
11 May 02 | Americas
Castro hits back at US 'lies'
06 May 02 | Americas
US expands 'axis of evil'
09 May 02 | Americas
US and Cuba's complex relations
24 May 01 | Americas
Cuba blasts Bush over dissidents
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