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US and Cuba re-open embassies – Will lifting the embargo be next?

By Matt Hadro

Washington D.C., Jul 20, 2015 / 04:44 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - The U.S. and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic ties for the first time since 1961 on Monday, a groundbreaking development advocated by Catholic bishops from both countries and set in motion by Pope Francis.

“It’s an historic day, a day for removing barriers,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a joint press conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on the re-establishment of relations.

“Both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement,” he continued.

The chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace had lauded progress toward re-opening the embassies as a “positive development” in a June 22 letter to members of Congress.

“We hold that the way to encourage religious freedom and human rights in Cuba is through dialogue and reconciliation between the United States and Cuba, and within Cuban society,” stated Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces in the letter.

U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations were officially restored as of midnight on Monday. Later in the day, in a symbolic move, the Cuban flag was raised outside the Cuban Interest Section – now the Cuban Embassy – in Northwest D.C., and was also displayed at the U.S. State Department.

Official relations between the two countries were severed back in 1961, a diplomatic gulf widened by an embargo on travel and trade.

However, the Obama administration had made small changes to existing policy starting in 2009, including Cuban-Americans having a limited freedom to travel between the countries and send money to Cuba.

In 2013, secret talks between diplomats began to open up relations, aided by the support of the Vatican.

This culminated in December of 2014, when the White House announced a prisoner swap and a groundbreaking shift in policy that talks would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations and re-open the embassies in the two countries. The Holy See had hosted the final diplomatic meeting where the agreement became official, and Pope Francis had personally appealed to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to come to a deal.

“The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens,” the Vatican Secretariat of State said in a communiqué on the day the prisoner exchange was announced.

On July 1, President Obama announced that the embassies would re-open on July 20.

“Beginning today, our diplomats in Havana will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island of Cuba, with the Cuban government, civil society and ordinary Cubans,” the White House stated on Monday.

“We look forward to collaborating with the Cuban government on issues of common interest, including counterterrorism and disaster response.  And we are confident that the best way to advance universal values like freedom of speech and assembly is through more engagement with the Cuban people.”

Both supporters and critics of the new relationship have expressed deep concerns over the Cuban government’s human rights record and repression of religious freedom. The White House has pledged to continue to push for greater respect for human rights in Cuba, and Secretary Kerry acknowledged at Monday’s press conference that he discussed the problems of human rights and trafficking with Rodriguez.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Cuban government still has a strong grip upon the practice of religion in the country, requiring all churches to officially register with the state’s Ministry of Justice and regulating the travel of foreign religious guests. Human rights activists are banned from active participation in religion.

The opening of the embassies is but one step in the process of strengthening the relationship between the two countries, the White House has maintained. The U.S. removed Cuba from the State Department’s state sponsors of terror list in May, and President Obama personally met with Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, which was the first in-person meeting of American and Cuban leaders since the diplomatic ties were severed.

Bishop Cantú has supported the measures taken so far to improve relations and has urged Congress to lift the travel and trade embargoes to Cuba.

“Certainly, Pope Francis’ historic visit to both Cuba and the United States in September will further inspire reconciliation and dialogue. We share in the view of the Catholic bishops of Cuba that engagement is the path to greater democracy and respect for human rights,” he said in his June 22 letter.

The trade embargo is still in place and Congress has not yet acted to end it, despite pressure from the White House to do so.

Pope Francis will be visiting both countries in September in a highly-anticipated tour this fall. He will meet with Cuban political leaders, pray with religious, priests, and seminarians, and celebrate mass in Holguin from Sept. 19-22, before heading to the United States.

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