HAVANA, Cuba — Former President Jimmy Carter seems to have a meteorological effect on this island.
Like the low-pressure cold fronts that periodically blow down from the north and sweep away Havana's suffocating humidity, Carter's mere presence here seems to bring down the temperatures of Cuba's chronically overheated politics.
In just over 48 hours, the 86-year-old Carter raced through the island's political obstacle course, lending a sympathetic ear to everyone from Fidel and Raul Castro to dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez and jailed American contractor Alan Gross. His gentle manner, unbending smile and projection of modesty could not possibly contrast more with the thermal rhetoric and testosterone-driven style that typically dominates here and in Miami.
Several Cuban-American lawmakers criticized the trip anyway, accusing Carter of going soft on the Castros. But in Havana, the former president's visit seemed to reaffirm his status as one of the few world figures capable of mediating seemingly intractable elements of the U.S.-Cuba conflict.
Just as during his 2002 visit, when Carter was allowed to address the Cuban people on television and called for greater freedoms and respect for human rights, Carter's comments during a Havana press conference Wednesday were printed verbatim in Cuba's state-controlled Granma newspaper.
“I hope that in the future ... there can be complete freedom for all Cubans to express themselves, to meet, and to travel, according to international human rights standards that apply in Cuba,” he said.
While Carter might not have gone home with Gross — whose imprisonment is now the biggest roadblock to improved relations with the United States — the trip made clear that Carter will likely be the best broker for whatever deal might eventually free him.
Just as important, though, was the sight of the aging peanut farmer greeting all, listening to everyone, and somehow making Cuba's most bitter divisions seem possible to overcome, if cooler heads could prevail.
Free the Cuban Five? Sure, Carter said, after meeting with two of the jailed Cuban intelligence agents' wives. They're no threat to the United States and they've served long enough, he said.
Alan Gross? He's innocent, said Carter, personally visiting with the 61-year-old American prisoner, who received a severe 15-year sentence earlier this month for “subversion.” His family is suffering and Cuba should let him go, Carter said.
Likewise, Carter said the United States should take Cuba off the blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism,” and drop the 50-year-old embargo, which only hurts “the Cuban people.”
The same man who said he greeted Fidel Castro “as an old friend” also met with two groups of Cuban dissidents, including award-winning blogger Yoani Sanchez and several political prisoners freed in recent months as part of an amnesty arranged by Cuba's Catholic Church leaders. He also visited with Havana's Jewish leaders and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana.
Having sat down with Raul Castro for six hours on Tuesday, Carter said he will return to the United States and convey elements of their conversation to U.S. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials, indicating that he is already playing an intermediary role.
Visiting foreign officials who meet with the island's small dissident groups ordinarily risk the wrath of the Castro government, but Carter's meetings with local Castro opponents failed to produce the usual denunciations. Instead, Carter gave the island's dissidents “a clear message of recognition and moral support for the many people who have been victims of the repression,” human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told Miami's El Nuevo Herald.
Still, Carter's trip was blasted by Cuban-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) went so far as to call the former president "a propaganda tool of the regime.”
"All that is left for President Carter to do is register as a foreign agent for the Cuban government in the U.S. so he can continue to do their bidding once he leaves the captive island for a life of freedom in America," Rivera said in a statement.
But the real enemy to Carter's attempt at reconciling old animosities might be time, and age. As Carter boarded his return flight Thursday, accompanied to the airport by 79-year-old Raul Castro, Castro called him “the best president the U.S. has had” in terms of relations with Cuba, and repeated his offer to “discuss anything” the United States wants under “equal conditions.”
“We've waited years and years, and we're willing to wait more,” Castro said.
Carter might not have that much time, at 86 — a year older than Fidel — but said he was willing to mediate.
“In the extremely unlikely possibility that both countries request my services I'd be happy to help,” he said, “but I don't think it's very likely.”