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Former President Carter plans visit with Castro in Cuba

Former President Jimmy Carter says he will journey to Cuba in what would be the first visit by a former or sitting American president in more than 70 years, provided the Bush administration doesn't stand in his way, a Carter spokeswoman confirmed Saturday.

"That's the best way to bring about change and not to punish the Cuban people themselves by imposing an embargo on them, which makes Castro seem to be a hero because he is defending his own people against the abuse of Americans."

If Carter does venture into Cuba, it would be one of the most watched trips to the island since Pope John Paul II traveled there four years ago.

"It would be momentous for a former American president to go to Cuba," said Silvia Wilhelm, director of Puentes Cubanos, a Miami exile group. "I'm sure the Bush administration will pay very close attention to what he says."

Cuban President Fidel Castro invited Carter to the island in October 2000 when the two met during the state funeral for Pierre Trudeau, a Cuban official said. Both were friends of the former Canadian prime minister. Castro repeated the invitation in January as part of what some analysts call a concerted effort by the Cubans to court high-profile Americans who oppose the longtime ban on trade with Cuba.

But Castro foes are concerned.

Carter "is a man of good intentions," said Joe Garcia, director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful anti-Castro lobbying group in Miami. "But I worry about him dealing with a dictatorship as ferocious as the Castro regime. We shouldn't be legitimizing this regime."

Garcia said he doesn't oppose a Carter trip if Carter genuinely tries to bring about change. That is, a government without Castro.

Cuban author Marta Rojas said the last American president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, in 1928.

As vice president, Richard Nixon traveled to Cuba and met with Castro in 1959.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.