VATICAN (CWN) -- The visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II led directly to a US decision to offer humanitarian aid to that country, Madeleine Albright told reporters in Rome today.

      The US Secretary of State reported that it was the Pope's visit, "and not anything else that Castro did," which led to a change in Washington policy, allowing aid to flow to the people of Cuba. She added, however, that the US embargo on the island nation would remain in place, despite Vatican calls for lifting that embargo.

      Meanwhile Bishop Paul Joseph Cordes, head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, has said that Cuba must have aid from abroad in order to recover from the nation's current economic problems. Bishop Cordes, who was in Cuba when the news broke that American aid would be forthcoming, welcomed that development, saying that "any measure which increases the aid is good news."

      Bishop Cordes said that the papal visit unleashed "new energies" in Cuba, and provided encouragement to the people living in difficult circumstances there. The most important fruit of the Pope's trip, he said, was the realization among Cuban people that they are neither isolated nor abandoned.

      Meanwhile in Havana, in their first official statement after the US government announced new measures to reduce the embargo against Cuba, Cuba's bishops hailed the decision and asked Cuban authorities for the "necessary space" to complete their evangelization tasks and to start an "honest dialogue" with the Communist government

      Last Friday, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced the suspension of some humanitarian aid restrictions against Cuba. The US will permit direct charter flights between both countries and also allow money, medicine, and food disbursement through the Catholic Church, Albright said. The White House said that Pope John Paul's January visit to Cuba convinced President Bill Clinton of "the needs of Cuban people and our obligation to support them."

      The Cuban Bishops' Conference said, "The Catholic Church doesn't ask for a powerful position. We only require enough space necessary to give service to our brothers." According to church sources, Cuba's bishops considered this petition during a private meeting held last month to reflect on the Holy Father's visit to Cuba. After giving thanks to Cuban authorities for their "exquisite hospitality" to the Pontiff, the bishops affirmed again the need to strengthen the Catholic presence in the country. "The Catholic Church wants to have an honest dialogue with the state's institutions and autonomous civil organizations to deepen our community service work together, especially with people in need," bishops added.

      Even as the bishops exhorted the Cuban people to maintain their efforts "to defend life since its beginning, including abortion and birth control practices," they didn't mention their petitions for free access to the media, Catholic education, and more visas for foreign missionaries. "We invite Cubans who, because of different circumstances, live outside of our country but feel as Cuba's sons, to collaborate peacefully and with a constructive and respectful spirit in the development of our nation." According to official figures, of the 1.5 million of Cubans who left the island in the past four decades, about 1.2 million live in the US and 75,000 fly annually to Cuba, in flights from Miami through Nassau, the Bahamas, or Cancun.

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March 26, 1998 volume 9, no. 61         DAILY CATHOLIC