HAVANA — A delegation of U.S. Roman Catholic Church leaders urged Barack Obama’s administration Tuesday to seize what they called a rare political opportunity to lift the 47-year-old economic embargo against Cuba’s communist government.
Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., said the U.S. church welcomed a recent move by Washington to relax travel restrictions on Cuban Americans with family in Cuba as well on the remittances they can send to those families. But he said there is much more to be done.
Wenski said at a news conference that the U.S. church hopes “both sides listen to their better angels” and move to normalize ties.
The U.S. church long has urged an end to the embargo, imposed by Washington in 1962 to weaken Cuba’s communist government. Opponents argue that easing or lifting the sanctions will only sustain a government that doesn’t tolerate dissent.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said Obama’s election presents a rare opportunity to bridge an “immense psychological distance” that has marred relations and end an economic policy the church says punishes Cuban citizens.
“There were other opportunities that were lost,” Wenski said. “And it’s important we do not lose the opportunity this time.”
Wenski, O’Malley and Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Antonio, Texas, met on Monday with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section, which serves as an informal U.S. government mission. They planned to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba’s parliament, later Tuesday.
Wenski said the delegation came away from the Interests Section meeting with the impression that U.S. policy toward Cuba is under review and that “their approach seems to be piece by piece.” He urged a quicker pace after “50 years of lack of confidence on both sides.”
“That’s a lot of history to overcome,” Wenski added. “We would hope that both sides listen to their better angels.”
The delegation is also in Cuba to check on church-funded hurricane recovery projects.
Cuba’s Catholic Church received more than $860,000 in funds from U.S. churches after hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma struck the island last year. The storms caused more than $10 billion in damage, left about 500,000 Cubans homeless and devastated farms across the island. Church funds are being used to rebuild homes and local churches and to construct a new seminary on the outskirts of Havana.
The delegation is visiting parishes in Havana and the eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba before returning to the United States on Friday.
Under Obama, the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to renew immigration talks suspended under the administration of President George W. Bush. But they’ve sparred over a U.S. suggestion that Havana release dozens of political prisoners.
Cuba insists that any dialogue have no preconditions — but it also has pushed for the release of the “Cuban Five,” men convicted of being unregistered foreign agents by a Miami court in 2001. Three also were convicted of conspiracy to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command. Cuba says that the men were trying to avoid terrorist attacks on the island and that anti-Castro sentiment in South Florida kept them from getting a fair trial.
Wenski said Tuesday that the Cuban church has enjoyed more freedom since a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II and that the country, which is suffering a severe economic crisis, “has reasons for hope. I believe this visit is a reason for that kind of hope.”