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It was a sun-drenched day in Cuba, and I'd planned to spend the afternoon wandering around beautiful but crumbling old Havana.

Instead, I found myself spending the afternoon at what the Bush administration now darkly describes as ``the axis of evil' - the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, the same lab that former President Carter visited this week during his commendable trip to Cuba.The Cuban government is extremely proud of its biotechnology center, and we foreign journalists (that's me) were urged to see the place where vaccines and pharmaceuticals are produced. The Cubans were trying to show us that they were not some broken-down Third World island but a country with a modern biotechnology center.

The pharmaceuticals, we were told, are sold in Europe and elsewhere in the world - but not in the United States because of our four-decades-old trade embargo of Cuban products, the Cubans pointedly complained.

That afternoon white-coated scientists told us about medicines being produced and experiments being conducted. One scientist was concentrating on an experimental drug that might inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Another was working on drugs to combat tropical diseases.

The first hour was interesting; the second hour I yawned.

That was 1992. On a later trip to Cuba in 1997, I was once again invited to visit the biotechnology center. No thanks, I politely replied. Been there, done that.

Do you find it curious that, shortly before Carter's departure for Cuba, the Bush administration trotted out an undersecretary of state who announced that Cuba had been tossed into ``the axis of evil' kettle because, according to the undersecretary, Cuba has a biological warfare program at the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and is sharing biotechnology with rogue states?

Clearly, Carter thought it was curious, too. ``These allegations were made, maybe not coincidentally, just before our visit to Cuba,' he said in Havana. He also said that before his departure, he met with Bush officials, including intelligence officials, and specifically asked if Cuba was producing biological weapons. The answer was ``no.'

Now, the Bush administration is backing down from its germ-warfare charge. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that, well, Cuba has the capacity to make biological weapons but there's no evidence that Cuba is doing so. Big difference. Any American biotechnology lab, say U.S. scientists, has that same capacity, but it doesn't mean we're brewing the stuff.

Most American analysts think Fidel Castro would be nuts to sell biological weapons to rogue states. The last thing Castro wants is for the United States to attack Cuba, especially because he no longer has his Soviet protectors.

Meanwhile, former President Carter has done America and Cubans a great deed. In his televised address to the Cuban people, with Castro sitting on the front row, Carter, 77, told Castro, 76, that he should hold free elections and respect human rights. And in a pointed message to President Bush, Carter said the United States should abolish its 40-year-old trade embargo.

An overwhelming majority of Americans, according to polls, think so, too. So do many members of Congress, including conservatives, who say the Cold War is over and Cuba poses no threat. Preserving the trade embargo, they stress, allows Castro to blame Cuba's economic woes on the United States, not himself. What's more, the U.S. embargo is hypocritical. If we have no embargo against communist China or communist Vietnam, then why communist Cuba?

The answer is U.S. politics. President Bush didn't want Carter to go to Cuba because he knew Carter would urge an end to the embargo. Bush won 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote in electoral-rich Florida, where hard-liners support the embargo. Bush has no intention of politically harming himself or his brother Jeb, who is running for re-election in the November gubernatorial election.

To counteract Carter, Bush has hurriedly scheduled a trip to Miami on Monday, when he will speak to the Cuban-American faithful and tell them he will tighten the trade embargo against Cuba.

Castro has outlasted 10 American presidents, and he'll probably outlast the Bush brothers. He can continue to rally Cubans to his tattered banner by blaming the United States for his island's problems, instead of his own communist policies.

Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, deserves a salute for telling Castro off and for telling Bush that the trade/travel embargo should be scuttled. As Carter wisely knows, the antidote to Castro is for the United States to trade with Cuba and for Americans to travel freely to Cuba, carrying with them their spirited democratic ideas.

\ Rosemary Roberts is a News & Record columnist. Her columns run on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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