The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

HAVANA -- It was an electrifying moment: former President Jimmy Carter speaking directly to the Cuban people, his uncensored words broadcast live on radio and television across the entire island.

Seven months after Carter's historic speech from an ornate hall at Havana University, little has changed on the surface in Cuba. Fidel Castro still rules his country of 11 million with an iron fist, his people struggling to survive in a moribund state-run economy that has been slowed by the worldwide tourism downturn since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

But beneath the surface, change appears to be brewing in Cuba, and many here say the visit by Carter -- who last month was presented the Nobel Prize for his global work toward peace -- was a dramatic catalyst aiding forces that may one day transform the island.

"I was expecting a lot from his visit, but in reality, it exceeded my hopes," said Oscar Espinosa, a former Cuban government economist who is now part of the island's small dissident movement. "The government has always manipulated its visitors, yet President Carter was able to speak without any control. He said things nobody has ever been able to say publicly, and he did so in a balanced, respectful way. It was very powerful."

Word is spread

Dissidents say the Carter visit, which included several meetings with top opposition leaders, drew worldwide attention to their efforts, but also prompted a new dialogue among thousands of everyday Cubans who have long been afraid of questioning their government.

While there has been a crackdown on the opposition since Carter left, dissident leaders say the visit inspired them to keep up their difficult, dangerous work.

"He was able to do what none of us as Cuban citizens can do -- give our opinions openly and freely," said Oswaldo Paya, another top Cuban dissident. "He gave a voice to those who have no voice."

During his 20-minute speech, delivered in Spanish edged with a Georgia drawl, Carter praised Cuba's health and education systems, but also pointedly criticized the nation's Communist rulers for choking off free speech and not allowing open, democratic elections.

The most controversial moment came when Carter praised the Varela Project, a petition drive calling for a referendum on government reforms.

Prior to Carter's speech, almost no Cubans outside the tiny opposition had heard of the petition drive, which has managed to gather several thousand signatures despite widespread fear of Castro's omipresent security apparatus.

While allowing publication of the full text of the speech in state-run newspapers the next day, Castro ignored Carter's references to the Varela Project during the rest of the former president's weeklong visit.

An anti-Bush petition?

Within a month, however, Castro organized his own petition drive, in which 99 percent of Cuba's 8 million voters supported a constitutional amendment declaring Cuba's socialist system "untouchable."

Castro insisted the petition was not a response to the Varela Project, but was instead aimed at countering remarks by President Bush, who shortly after Carter's visit said the U.S. embargo -- imposed during the 1960s after Cuba became a Communist state -- would not be lifted until Cuba adopts democratic reforms.

Today, Cuban officials praise the Carter visit, pointing out that they broadcast his speech live to the nation and gave him unlimited access to meet with citizens, including dissidents.

As to the Varela Project, Carter "was free to express his ideas and we respect his opinion, although we totally disagree," said Rafael Dausa, director of the North American Division of the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

"Unfortunately, the Varela Project is completely manipulated by the U.S. government and the Miami mafia," Dausa said, using a term for anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. "It is not a legitimate project. It is imported and imposed from abroad."

It could be argued that U.S.-Cuba relations have in fact worsened since the Carter visit, as Bush has tightened enforcement of the restrictions that bar most Americans from visiting the island and has confirmed his determination to uphold the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, despite opinion polls showing most Americans oppose it.

At the same time, though, a steady stream of American business and government leaders continues visiting Cuba, and a new bipartisan working group in Congress has become a powerful voice advocating an end to the embargo.

U.S. firms are allowed to sell food and medicine to Cuba, but only if the Cubans pay in cash, up front. Trade experts predict that about $175 million in U.S. goods will be shipped to Cuba this year.

In Cuba, there seems to be a growing appetite for change, although few people are willing to talk openly about politics.

Most focus on their daily struggle to survive in a nation where the average monthly wage hovers around $12. Cuba's economic growth rate fell from 5.6 percent in 2000 to 3 percent in 2001, the last full year for which data is available, while revenues in the vital tourism sector slipped from $2.3 billion to $2.2 billion.

Castro's revolution tottered in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to $6 billion in annual Soviet subsidies, but the wily Cuban leader held his country together by turning to tourism.

Partnering with private firms from Canada, Spain, Italy and other countries, Cuba has built a thriving destination attracting visitors in search of cheap holidays filled with Cuban sun, music, food and culture.

But tourism has spawned social tensions. Most Cubans are barred from visiting tourist resorts, while workers in the industry earn far more in tips than average Cubans, creating wealth disparities in a socialist nation where all are supposed to be equal.

Meanwhile, despite the infusion of foreign investment, Cuba's infrastructure is crumbling. Citizens constantly complain about crowded, dirty public buses, while roads, sewers, water lines and most of Havana's historic skyline all need billions of dollars worth of refurbishment.

Underlying the tensions is the uncertainty over who might succeed Castro. While the Cuban dictator shows few signs of slowing down and no appetite for retirement at 76, it is clear he will one day exit the stage and Cuba will be faced with a possible leadership vacuum.

Most experts believe Castro will be succeeded by his brother, Raul Castro, head of the Cuban military, who might serve as a figurehead in a junta with younger leaders who would manage the day-to-day affairs of the government.

But change won't come easily in a society that has stifled free expression for 44 years.

Dissident leaders say Castro has cracked down in the wake of the Carter visit, expelling some university students active in the movement, breaking up meetings and recently imprisoning an outspoken critic of the regime, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.

Still, they are encouraged by the publicity Carter generated for the Varela Project. A leading dissident who does not support the project, Marta Beatriz Roque, has organized opposition groups, while Paya, the Varela Project organizer, was recently awarded the European Union's top human rights prize.

Meanwhile, the Varela Project work continues, now aided by committees all over Cuba that are gathering signatures and spreading the word about a petition few had heard of before Carter's speech.

"Carter took away the veil," Paya said. "We still have very difficult moments to come, but it proves that there are thousands of Cubans who are not afraid to say, 'We deserve our rights of free speech and a voice in our government.' Now there is real hope. Fear is the most potent weapon of totalitarian governments. We are moving forward without fear or hate."