Bishops react to recent U.S.-Cuba agreement

By Dennis Sadowski 
Catholic News Service

American church officials expressed optimism about plans by the U.S. and Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations and work toward reshaping how the two neighboring countries interact with each other.
The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace said he hoped the effort would “foster dialogue, reconciliation, trade, cooperation and contact between our respective nations and citizens.”
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, NM, said in a Dec. 17 statement that he also was overjoyed by the release of Alan Gross, an American contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, who has been incarcerated in Cuba for five years.
The release came hours before President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro told their respective nations about plans to re-establish diplomatic relations and broaden banking, commerce and communications ties.
Pope Francis was involved in bringing the two countries together, personally appealing to Obama and Castro to put aside their differences and work toward the release of Gross and other prisoners.
The two nations also agreed to an exchange of prisoners. The U.S. agreed to release three Cubans imprisoned since 2001 since being convicted on murder and espionage counts; in return Cuba released a Cuban who had been held for nearly 20 years after being accused of providing key intelligence information to the U.S.
Bishop Cantu said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “has long held that universal human rights will be strengthened through more engagement between the Cuban and American people. For decades, the USCCB has called for the restoration of diplomatic relations between our nations.”
Bishop Cantu also welcomed the announcement by Obama that Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism would be reviewed by the U.S. Department of State.
“Engagement is the part to support change in Cuba and to empower the Cuban people in their quest for democracy, human rights and religious liberty,” he added.
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami released a statement in which he described the news as a “game changer” and welcomed the work of Pope Francis in encouraging the two countries together to settle their long-standing differences.
“Pope Francis did what popes are supposed to do: build bridges and promote peace,” he said.
Archbishop Wenski also said the Catholic Church has long opposed the economic embargo the U.S. has imposed on Cuba for decades, calling it “a blunt instrument that hurt the innocent more than the guilty.”
“We have consistently advocated that the U.S. should revise this policy, in the hope that engagement and dialogue would prove more helpful in improving conditions in Cuba than a policy of confrontation and isolation,” he said.
The archbishop also expressed hope that Castro appeared to tell the Cuban people in a brief address to his nation Dec. 17 that the government was open to discussing democracy and human rights issues with the U.S.
“Progress in this area is normally the result, and not the precondition, of such talks and so the prospect of such talks is a positive development. As President Obama said, to seek the collapse of Cuba is not sound policy. Cuba needs change,” Archbishop Wenski said.
“As Cuba transitions through such changes, we all should encourage a soft landing, that is change that is peaceful and offers real hope for the Cuban people on both sides of the Florida straits,” he said.
Obama also laid out plans to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba; review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; allow the sale of telecommunications equipment to Cuba; lift embargoes on Cuban products in the U.S. and ease of financial restrictions between the two countries.
Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago also welcomed the announcement.

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