WASHINGTON – The U.S. government should emulate the Catholic Church and look for a dramatic way to improve relations with Cuba, said a U.S. lawmaker after returning from a fact-finding trip to the Caribbean island.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., cited the 1998 trip to Cuba by Pope John Paul II and said it had a “dramatic impact” on improving the church’s situation in the communist-ruled country.
“The pope’s visit opened things up for the church,” said Rep. McGovern at a Jan. 23 panel discussion in Washington on U.S.-Cuban relations.
“We should learn by that example,” he said.
Rep. McGovern was part of a bipartisan delegation of House members that visited Cuba in December to check out the political situation caused by the lengthy hospitalization of Cuban leader Fidel Castro after intestinal surgery. Because of his illness, Castro temporarily transferred the presidency last July to his brother, Raul Castro, and has yet to return to power.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank based in New York.
The delegation met Dec. 16 with Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana.
Rep. McGovern cited the cardinal as saying that Catholics in Cuba are not prevented from practicing their faith.
“The cardinal said that he was proud to say that some Communist Party members even go to church,” said the congressman.
Cardinal Ortega was more concerned about the U.S. economic embargo and other U.S. sanctions against Cuba than he was about Cuban policies, Rep. McGovern said.
He told the delegation that the U.S. embargo and other restrictions are hurting Cubans, said Rep. McGovern.
The cardinal’s position was that if the U.S. lifts the embargo the life of the average Cuban will improve, said Rep. McGovern.
The U.S. lawmaker did not see a major role for the church in shaping Cuba’s future policies in a post-Fidel Castro era because “the church is not a political organization.”
The cardinal, in a Dec. 17 interview in Havana with Catholic News Service, said he was pleased with his meeting with the six Democrats and four Republicans.
“They want an improvement in the U.S. government’s relations with Cuba,” the cardinal said.
When asked about the prospects for better U.S.-Cuban relations, the cardinal answered that “everything depends on attitudes there in the United States.”
During 2006 the cardinal and several other Cuban church officials had said that the situation of the church initially improved after the 1998 papal visit, but has been choppy in recent years. The church still cannot operate schools and has problems getting permission to build churches, some priests are spied on and the church lacks access to the state-controlled media, they said.
Joining Rep. McGovern on the Jan. 23 panel was another member of the House delegation that visited Cuba, Rep. Jo Emerson, R-Mo.
Rep. Emerson and Rep. McGovern favored relaxing the U.S. economic embargo and easing U.S. restrictions on travel and monetary remittances to Cuba as a way of improving bilateral relations.
Improved relations also would allow the U.S. and Cuba to deal with drug smuggling and immigration issues, said Rep. McGovern.
Dropping U.S. economic, travel and financial restrictions would have the added benefit of bettering the human rights situation in Cuba, they said.
Rep. McGovern said that the antagonistic U.S. policy toward Cuba is used by the Cuban government to justify jailing dissidents, saying that they are U.S. agents.
By improving relations “we remove an excuse to arrest dissidents,” said Rep. McGovern.
Both lawmakers said that human rights remains a problem in Cuba and that the congressional delegation presented Cuban officials with a list of dissidents they would like to see released from imprisonment.
They predicted that there would be no major political changes in Cuba after the death of Fidel Castro and that Cubans are taking the current transitional period in stride.
Under Raul Castro, “it’s the same menu with a different waiter,” said Rep. McGovern.