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Catholic Church Bucks Helms on Aid

May 15, 1998

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church indicated Friday it does not support a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms to use church agencies to funnel humanitarian aid to the communist island.

Helms, R-N.C., introduced the measure Thursday, saying it was aimed at undermining the government of President Fidel Castro.

In response to the bill, the Catholic Conference of Bishops in Cuba issued a statement saying the country’s church agencies receive and distribute private, not government, funding. ``We will continue working in the same way in the future.″

Under Helms’ proposal, the United States would provide up to $100 million in food and medicine over four years, delivering it through the Catholic Church and ``truly independent relief organizations.″

In Washington, Helms’ spokesman Marc Thiessen downplayed the church’s announcement.

``We understand what you have to do and say to survive in Castro’s Cuba. These people have a gun to their heads. It would be suicide for anyone in Cuba to be seen as endorsing Jesse Helms’ legislation,″ Thiessen said.

He said he had found the idea ``almost universally embraced″ by Cubans when he visited the island during the papal visit.

At a news conference in Washington introducing the plan, Helms said the aid plan was timely. He said Pope John Paul II’s January visit to Cuba had ``sown the seeds of spiritual and political liberation in the Cuban mind,″ as he did in Poland in the 1980s.

Helms did not mention that John Paul also criticized as immoral the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which the senator supports.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega also criticized early reports of the Helms proposal in an interview published Wednesday by the church’s Palabra Nueva magazine.

``Reaffirming on one hand the restrictions and isolation that are some of the causes of the difficulties and alleviating those same difficulties on the other hand is not a proposal which follows a healthy logic,″ he said.

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