Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that the United States and Syria are close to restoring full diplomatic ties, but he doubted Cuba's new openness means its leaders are ready to grant free speech or change their political system.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is "very eager" to restore full ties with Washington, Carter said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it happens this year," Carter said in a telephone interview from Quito, Ecuador, at the start of a four-nation South American trip.
He plans to meet Assad in Syria in early June after attending elections in Lebanon.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after a political assassination widely blamed on Syria - a claim Damascus denies. Washington has long objected to Syria's support for the Hizbullah and Hamas terrorist groups as well as its alliance with Iran.
Syria has recently expressed openness to indirect peace talks with Israel as long as they focus on a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt 30 years ago during his presidency.
'Travel restrictions hurt Cuban people'
On Cuba, he indicated that he thinks Fidel Castro - and not brother Raul, who succeeded Fidel as president after he fell ill in 2006 - has the last word on the communist island.
"I think Fidel is staying as aloof as he possibly can," said the 84-year-old Carter, who has long opposed the US trade embargo. But Fidel also "reserves the right to come forward on a particular occasion when he feels his voice might be helpful in clarifying an issue."
Fidel Castro said in a newspaper column last week that President Barack Obama "misinterpreted" April 16 remarks by Raul in which he said Cuba was willing to discuss "everything, everything, everything," with Washington, including human rights and political prisoners.
"I don't think (Raul) was specifically talking about abolishing Cuba's restraints on assembling and freedom of speech and changing the form of government," Carter said. Carter said he had not spoken to either Castro brother or to Obama since what has been widely seen as a thaw in Cuban relations.
He said he hopes Obama, who kicked off the exchange by easing restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island by Cuban-Americans, will be aggressive in taking advantage of any opening.
"I would like to see the United States lift all travel restrictions because that only hurts the Cuban people," Carter said.
He was to meet with Ecuador's newly re-elected president, Rafael Correa, on Wednesday, and continue on to meet with the presidents of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Carter said he was exploring the possibility of bringing together the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru - with US representation - in a forum where "sensitive issues can be discussed freely."
His foundation, The Carter Center, has been trying to persuade Ecuador and Colombia to restore diplomatic ties severed after Bogota's March 1, 2008 cross-border raid to attack a rebel camp run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group.