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Pope accepts invitation to visit Cuba

Pope and Castro

November 19, 1996
Web posted at: 1:20 p.m. EST (1820 GMT)

From Correspondent Brent Sadler

ROME (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II plans a historic trip to Cuba, probably sometime next year, Vatican officials said Tuesday. The pope accepted Cuban President Fidel Castro's invitation to visit the island, extended during the Cuban leader's private audience at the Vatican Tuesday morning.

After the meeting, the Vatican issued a communiqué calling for normalization of conditions for the Roman Catholic Church and its members in the communist nation.

In a news conference following the meeting, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Walls said no specific time frame for the visit was set, but the visit could be added to an already planned trip to South America in October 1997.


Navarro-Walls described the 35-minute meeting between the two leaders as warm and cordial and said the two exchanged gifts.

Castro's solemn entrance into the Vatican Tuesday morning broke a diplomatic impasse between Cuba and the Roman Catholic Church that has lasted for nearly 40 years. Castro and Pope John Paul II -- at opposite ends of the spectrum on such issues as religious freedom, democracy, human rights and birth control -- have reached out in an attempt to improve relations.

The meeting came as the two found common ground in their opposition to trade sanctions, specifically the 34-year U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Castro welcomed the pope's recent attack on such sanctions, which in turn opened the door for Tuesday's meeting, and Castro's subsequent invitation for the pope to come to the only Latin American country he hasn't visited.

"Time is ripe," said Vatican journalist Marco Politi. "The pope wants to go to Cuba to demonstrate that ... all Latin America is a field for the action of the church."

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Tuesday's meeting was perhaps the pope's most significant with a world leader since he met with then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. Coincidentally, on the eve of his meeting with Castro, the pope met again for the fourth time with Gorbachev, whose reforms led to his own downfall and the collapse of Soviet-style communism in eastern Europe.

Fidel Castro's 40-year revolution still survives, and he remains as committed as ever to the communist system. But improved relations with the Vatican could carry the risk of increased pressure to reform.


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