September 16, 2015 / 2:58 PM / 2 years ago

Pope to discuss Cuba embargo on trip but not dwell on issue

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis is expected to raise the Vatican’s opposition to the United States’ embargo against Cuba during his forthcoming trip but he will not dwell on the issue so as not to be seen as interfering in U.S. politics, Vatican officials say.

Pope Francis walks during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

The pope leaves on Saturday on a trip that will take him first to Cuba and then to the United States and how he addresses the embargo is keenly awaited in both countries.

The visit caps his success in helping to bring the former enemies together after more than half a century of animosity through secret talks brokered by the Vatican. Full diplomatic relations were restored in July.

U.S. President Barack Obama has modestly eased some business and travel restrictions but the broader embargo remains in place, 53 years after measures were first imposed.

The Vatican opposes the embargo, saying that ordinary Cubans are those who suffer most from its effects.

“Francis is as strongly opposed to the embargo as his predecessors,” said one Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

When former Pope Benedict visited Cuba in 2012, he condemned “restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, (that) unfairly burden its people.”

Pope John Paul condemned the embargo in strong words several times during his landmark trip to Cuba in 1998, the first by a pope.

“The pope is going to Cuba at a crucial time in its history. He wants to show his closeness to the Cuban people and that means acknowledging the hardships they have endured under the embargo,” another official said.

But both said they did not expect the issue of embargo to loom large during the trip, and particularly not during his time in the United States, where Francis will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress.

Only Congress can lift the embargo, something majority Republicans are unlikely to do anytime soon despite the Democratic president’s appeal for it to be rescinded.

The pope does not want to “rock the boat” because he realizes that his trip is taking place at a delicate time in fledgling U.S.-Cuban relations, one of the officials said.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, leveraged the Vatican’s ties to both countries, writing letters to Cuban President Raul Castro and Obama to help foster last December’s announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations.

“He’s not going to hit Congress over the head about the embargo,” one of the officials said. “That could backfire and our position on the embargo has always been clear.”

Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega has said when Francis met Obama last year before relations were restored that the pontiff told Obama there would be many benefits for the United States if it lifted the embargo.

“Look, this is not only good for the people of Cuba, who have suffered much, but also for your government, for you personally and for your country’s relations with Latin America,” Ortega quoted the pope as telling Obama at the Vatican.

Francis will have a private meeting with Obama at the White House next Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Jaime Hamre in Havana

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