US bishops press for further easing of restrictions on Cuba
By Catholic News Service
HAVANA (CNS) -- A delegation of U.S. Catholic bishops visiting Cuba urged U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leaders to take advantage of the change in the U.S. administration to end the trade embargo Washington has imposed on the island nation since 1962.
"I believe that the church (both in Cuba and the U.S.) wants to be the protagonist of a better approach," Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., a member of the U.S. bishops' international policy committee, told reporters at a press conference in Havana Aug. 18.
After a meeting earlier in the day with the staff at the U.S. Interests Section, which represents the government in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, Bishop Wenski said he believes the Obama administration's revision of policies toward Cuba is serious and proceeding step by step.
The U.S. church supports easing travel to Cuba and eliminating the embargo that prohibits most trade between the two countries.
Obama has already announced the easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba to visit relatives, loosened restrictions on how much money people can send to their relatives, and created some openings in trade barriers to facilitate telecommunications improvements. Efforts are pending in Congress to end all travel restrictions and to end the trade embargo.
"The church of Cuba wants these changes as much as the church in the United States," said Bishop Wenski.
He also said such gestures raise the confidence of both parties that further change is possible. He insisted that after opportunities for change were lost in the past "it's important we not lose the opportunity this time."
Bishop Wenski, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu were visiting Cuba the week of Aug. 17, in part to see the island's progress in recovering from three hurricanes and two tropical storms that hit late last summer and fall.
The U.S. bishops provided $250,000 in hurricane relief aid as part of $860,000 in support given last year to the church in Cuba.
The U.S. prelates, accompanied by Oblate Father Andrew Small, head of the Church in Latin America office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal O'Malley's secretary, Father Jonathan Gaspar, also met with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and were scheduled to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's parliament.
At the press conference, Cardinal O'Malley said the U.S. church "has a very close historical relationship with this country." Since the visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Cardinal O'Malley said, conditions for the church and its relations with the government have clearly improved.
"We see that the church now has more space, and we want to see that grow," he added.
Bishop Wenski said he was astonished at the progress at a seminary built recently near Havana. He said it is appropriate that during this Year for Priests designated by the Vatican the seminary is the place where the seeds of vocations are nurtured.
He said the presence of a seminary in Cuba is testimony to the hope for the pastoral mission of the church.
US church leaders urge Obama to end Cuba embargo
By JAMES ANDERSON (AP) – Aug 18, 2009
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, Florida, 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."