HAVANA -- Flashing his trademark smile, Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba on Sunday and became the first U.S. president -- in or out of office -- to visit this communist country since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
Dressed in a gray suit, Castro, 75, greeted Carter, 77, at the airport with a handshake and symbolically threw open the doors of the island to the former American head of state.
Carter, Castro said, could speak with anyone "even if they do not share our endeavors," an obvious reference to human rights groups. He also said Carter could go anywhere -- including Cuban scientific centers, which U.S. officials recently claimed could be working toward making biological weapons.
Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, had traveled here as friends of the Cuban people and hoped to meet many during their five-day stay. Carter reminded Cubans that he would be addressing them on live television Tuesday evening.
Castro escorted the Carters to a wooden podium where flags from the two nations flew side-by-side and both national anthems were played. The "Star-Spangled Banner" is rarely heard in Cuba, though it was also played when the Baltimore Orioles competed against a Cuban all-star baseball team here in 1999.
"It is no secret that for almost a century there have not been optimal relations between the two states," Castro told Carter. "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. That is why those of us who were witnesses to that attitude see you with respect."
Castro also told Carter he was welcome to expand his scheduled visit later this week to a biotechnology institute to include other similar institutions after recent U.S. charges his country is trying to develop biological weapons.
"You will 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," said Castro, who has vigorously denied the accusations.
Carter has a science background, but in nuclear technology. He has a bachelor's degree in science from the U.S. Naval Academy. As an officer in the Navy, Carter did graduate work in nuclear technology and nuclear physics.
Reading his address in Spanish, Carter said he and the former first lady were visiting "as friends of the people of Cuba and hope to know Cubans from different walks of life."
The former American president said he looked forward to meeting with Castro, as well as "representatives of religious groups and others to examine the ideas that are important for Rosalynn and me," including peace, human rights, democracy and the easing of human suffering.
Afterward, Castro joined the Carters in a black Soviet-made Zil limousine for the trip to their hotel. The limousine was a gift to Cuba from then-Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev in the mid-1970s and is used only for the most distinguished of guests.
Talks with Castro
On Sunday evening, Castro met Carter for talks at his headquarters, the Palace of the Revolution. Afterward, a larger group was to attend the first of two dinners the Cuban leader had planned for the Carters.
Castro has been Cuba's head of state during the administrations of 10 American presidents. With none were relations less hostile than with Carter's.
As president from 1977-81, Carter helped re-establish diplomatic missions in both countries and negotiated the release of thousands of political prisoners. He also made it possible for Cuban exiles to visit relatives on the island and, for a short time, for Americans to travel here freely.
But a U.S. trade embargo is still in place after four decades and relations are as chilly as ever. The American government also restricts travel here for most of its citizens.
"Jimmy Carter! You are one of our best presidents! I love you!" American Elaine George yelled out a window of a hotel bar as the former president walked by on a tour of the historic district.
"I'm not supposed to be here," said George, of Benicia, Calif. "Don't tell my mother!"
Carter, who is the first former or sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge came in 1928, has emphasized this is a private visit and that he will not be negotiating with the Cuban government.
The White House and Cuban exiles want Carter, who has made a post-presidential career out of monitoring elections in developing democracies, to talk bluntly with his host about human rights and democracy.
After an afternoon meeting with Carter, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said they had not discussed the Varela Project, a petition filed Friday by Cuban dissidents seeking a referendum to ask voters if they want individual guarantees such as freedom of speech and the right to start their own businesses.
In Cuba's first official response since the petition was filed, Perez Roque said it was "not a nationally produced production. It is an imported product ... financed, supported and directed by outside interests," a reference to the U.S. government.
Petition organizers deny outside involvement.