By Ezra Fieser
Catholic News Service
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) — Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States comes as people and politicians in both countries increasingly support ending an economic embargo that has been in place for more than five decades.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Cuban President Raul Castro and the Vatican have called for a lifting of the embargo, which was first put in place in 1960 and repeatedly strengthened in the years since in response to growing strains between the countries.
Yet, despite public support for the embargo to end, U.S. Congress remains separated on the issue, with several bills stalled in subcommittees. Congressional approval is needed to roll back the sanctions.
Several members of the House and Senate have said Cuba needs to transition to an open democracy with free elections before they lend support to ending the embargo.
Pope Francis, who helped broker a diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S., could lend a powerful voice to the argument against the embargo when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress Sept. 24.
Pope Francis’ visit comes as polls in Cuba and the United States show public support growing for doing away with the embargo.
A Pew Research Center poll of 2,002 adults conducted July 14-20 found that 72 percent of respondents — including 59 percent of Republicans — favored ending the trade embargo, up from 66 percent in January.
A March poll conducted for Univision Noticias found 96 percent of Cuban adults surveyed were against the "bloqueo" as it’s called there, and that Obama and Pope Francis were tied as the most popular figures.
Church leaders in Cuba and the U.S. oppose the embargo and have periodically called on the U.S. politicians to lift it.
Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino said that, in March 2014, Pope Francis told Obama that "Latin America is united against the embargo" and that lifting it would help the U.S. improve relations with countries in the region.
"The pope spoke about the embargo to Obama, and he told him that it was a totally obsolete measure that was put in place before (Obama) was born," according to an interview with Cardinal Ortega published on the Havana archdiocesan website.
Speaking to the weekly Tribuna de La Habana newspaper before Pope Francis’ visit, Cardinal Ortega spoke against the embargo, "which has affected us during many years." He also spoke of a "new possibility" in diplomatic relations that comes with the pope’s visit.
"It is a real event for any country," he said. "The pope is coming to visit not only the Catholic Church, also … the Cuban people."
Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office for the Church in Latin America, said last month that the embargo puts a "block between two hands, two sister churches working together."
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