HAVANA, May 12 — Former President Jimmy Carter began a five-day visit to Cuba today with a promise from President Fidel Castro that he could inspect any of the island's biotechnology research facilities.
The offer, made at a welcoming ceremony, seeks to blunt allegations by the State Department last Monday that Cuba had developed a limited capacity to make biological weapons and that it had shared biotechnology with "rogue" nations.
Mr. Carter, who is here with a small delegation from his Carter Center, based in Atlanta, had already been scheduled to visit a genetic engineering facility that is a showcase for the Cuban government.
"If you are interested and if you wish," Mr. Castro said, "you may have free and complete access, together with any specialists of your choosing, to that or any other of our most prestigious scientific research centers, some of which have been recently accused, just a few days before your visit, of producing biological weapons."
Mr. Carter made no specific reference to the offer during his address. He did, however, say he came as a friend of the Cuban people and was looking forward to meeting with Cubans from all walks of life.
"We are eager to personally see your achievements in education, health and culture," Mr. Carter said. "We also appreciate the opportunity to meet with President Castro, other members of the government and representatives of religious and other groups." Mr. Castro said Mr. Carter was free to meet with any dissidents he wished.
Mr. Carter arrived at 10:45 this morning in an executive jet that brought him, his wife, Rosalynn, and his delegation directly from Atlanta. He smiled broadly as he stepped off the plane and shook hands with Mr. Castro, who was dressed in a charcoal gray suit instead of his usual olive drab fatigues.
The modest welcoming ceremony was limited to a small circle of top Cuban officials and the chief of the United States Interests Section here.
Mr. Castro praised the former American president as a man of courage, adding that the Carter administration brought a brief thaw to relations between Cuba and the United States even as the cold war raged.
"It is no secret that for almost a century there have not been optimal relations between the two states, and there still are not," Mr. Castro said. "However, I wish to state that in the four years of your tenure as president, you had the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations."
Mr. Carter jokingly played down any heroism on his part. "To demonstrate the courage President Castro mentioned, I am going to continue my address in Spanish," Mr. Carter said, and he did so.
Mr. Carter is the most prominent American political figure to have traveled to Cuba since 1959. But there have been visits from lawmakers who favor lifting a trade embargo and a travel ban.
Bush administration officials said when they approved the visit that they hoped Mr. Carter would use the opportunity to promote human rights and democracy. A spokesman for Mr. Carter said at the time that administration officials had not tried to dissuade him nor had they asked him to carry specific messages.
Those who favor more open relations with Cuba praised Mr. Carter's visit as an effort to start a new dialogue. The trip was denounced by others though, as a sop to Mr. Castro, whose country is facing economic problems and international criticism for its human rights record.
President Bush is expected to spell out his own Cuba policy on May 20 in Miami at a ceremony celebrating the centennial of the founding of the Cuban republic.
Mr. Carter's visit comes two days after human rights advocates here delivered petitions signed by more than 11,000 people asking for a referendum on greater economic and political freedoms and amnesty for political prisoners. Supporters of the petition drive and other human rights advocates will meet with Mr. Carter on Thursday.
Mr. Carter said the ideals of human rights and democracy were dear to him, as he alluded to the Carter Center's work. "We understand that on some of these themes we have differences," he said. "But we appreciate the opportunity to identify some points in common and some areas of cooperation."
Mr. Castro said Mr. Carter was welcome to meet with whomever he wished. On previous occasions, the Cuban government has lambasted dissidents as a small group paid off by the United States.
"You will have free access to every place you want to see in Cuba, and we shall not take offense for any contact you may wish to make, even with those who do not share our endeavors," Mr. Castro said.
While human rights advocates are looking forward to the Thursday meeting, as well as Mr. Carter's televised address on Tuesday night from the University of Havana, they do not expect any harsh challenges to Mr. Castro. Some, in fact, have worried that Mr. Carter's visit could help Mr. Castro improve his domestic image, since he was not only rebuffed recently in Geneva by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, but also has strained relations with former Latin American allies.
"The visit is the perfect ring for the Castro government because it has yet to re-establish itself after being hurt in Geneva," said Marta Beatriz Roque, an economist and a dissident who spent three years in jail for publishing a booklet critical of the Cuban system. "Now they have a defender of human rights coming to the country."
During Mr. Carter's term, diplomats and others also entered into talks with Cuba that resulted in the release of 3,600 political prisoners and in a system of family visits to and from the United States. However, any further rapprochement stalled over the United States' concerns about Cuba's military role in Africa and its support for insurgent movements in Central America.
The relationship further crumbled when Mr. Carter, campaigning in 1980, expressed sympathy for hundreds of Cubans who were seeking asylum inside the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Mr. Castro ultimately allowed more than 120,000 people to migrate to the United States in what became known as the Mariel boatlift.
Mr. Carter began his visit here today in an armored, Soviet-era Zil limousine, followed by a caravan of black Mercedes-Benz sedans. When the group arrived in Old Havana, they embarked on a walking tour of the area, which is rich with renovated historic buildings.
Mr. Carter entered Cathedral Square to the scattered applause of tourists, who were particularly scare today. As he walked down cobblestone streets, a few curious Cubans looked down from their balconies.
A violinist played "Que Será, Será" as the entourage walked inside the Hotel Ambos Mundos, once home to Hemingway.
Elaine George, an American tourist, leaned out from the bar and shouted out. "Jimmy Carter, you are one of the best presidents," she said.
Ms. George, who is from the San Francisco Bay area, said she was here despite the American travel ban. She said perhaps Mr. Carter's visit would help change that. "I hope it means something," she said. "I hope he tears down this wall between Cuba and the United States. I'm not supposed to be here, but I am."
A few Cubans smiled and waved at Mr. Carter. "I'm happy to see him here," said Alfredo Chaubin. "He is the one American president who put the least pressure on Cuba. We wish him much health."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company