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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
Carter leaves Cuba on friendly terms
Rosalynn Carter (L), Fidel Castro (C) and Jimmy Carter (R)
Mr Carter was on friendly terms with the Cuban leader
Former US President Jimmy Carter has ended an historic visit to Cuba saying he was hopeful US-Cuba relations could change.

Addressing reporters before his return to the US, Mr Carter called for "co-operation without restrictions" between the two countries.

I don't think anybody could deny the unprecedented nature of my words reaching the average Cuban household

Jimmy Carter
Mr Carter will report the findings from his trip to President Bush, who is due to deliver a speech in Miami on Monday outlining his administration's policy towards Havana.

Washington has already rejected Mr Carter's calls for the four-decade-old trade embargo against Cuba to be lifted, and analysts expect Mr Bush to announce a hardening of policies.

During his visit - the first by a serving or former US president since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 - Mr Carter also called on the communist leader to embrace democracy.

Remarkable achievement

The BBC's Daniel Schweimler in Havana says Mr Carter's visit caused more of a stir than many people in both Cuba and the United States had anticipated.

He spoke openly about the dissidents on the island and shortcomings in the country's political system directly to the Cuban people and in front of Mr Castro.

But our correspondent says it is perhaps more remarkable, given the bitterness on all sides in the conflict, that he left on friendly terms with Mr Castro, the dissidents and the Cuban people.

Mr Carter said he also discussed a bid to hold a referendum on democratic and economic reforms, directly with Mr Castro.

Project Varela

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

Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter at a baseball match
The two politicians even found time for baseball
Mr Carter said he believed the Cuban Government had not yet decided how it would respond to the proposals.

"I think it's accurate to say the decision to deal with it - or not - has not been decided," he said.

"Will the text be published in [the official newspaper] Granma? Will the National Assembly permit an open debate on it? I don't know."

Historic speech

Mr Carter's speech was broadcast uncensored by state radio and television and was subsequently printed word-for-word by the Communist Party's press.

"I don't think anybody could deny the unprecedented nature of my words reaching the average Cuban household," Mr Carter said.

And he added: "It is a fact that no country in this hemisphere has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Cuba."

Dissident's fear

Jimmy Carter crammed a tremendous amount into his six-day visit - even finding time for some baseball and a spot of bird watching.

Cubans watching the Carter speech
The unprecedented address was broadcast live

As well as a series of meetings with President Castro and his officials, Mr Carter held talks with dissidents and religious leaders.

The meetings had been held "with no restrictions or government interference", he said.

Mr Carter said the dissidents had told him they feared US plans to increase financing for their efforts could be counterproductive.

"They thought this would put an undeserved stigma on their actions," he said.

The former president said he would send his report to the White House and State department on Saturday.

The BBC's Daniel Schweimler
"All those involved in the conflict are cautious about the possibility of change"
Robert Hunter, Former presidential advisor
"Cuba... is a domestic political question"

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

17 May 02 | Newsmakers
Jimmy Carter: Born again statesman
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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