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Vatican Sees Advances in Cuba

April 17, 1998

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ The Vatican believes Pope John Paul II’s trip to Cuba has borne fruit and it is cautiously pushing ahead with its agenda to raise the profile of the Roman Catholic church on the communist island.

The release of some political prisoners, an increasing role allowed Catholic humanitarian organizations and more freedom in Easter celebrations are viewed as signs that the Vatican’s policy is on track.

``The dialogue continues in a climate of respect to allow more missionaries in,″ Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, said Thursday. ``I am satisfied the Cuban authorities want to follow the road of dialogue begun with the visit.″

And while the Vatican has not specifically played the role of a broker, the pope’s visit has been cited in Washington as a reason for U.S. moves to increase humanitarian assistance.

In the same climate, Spain’s icy relations with its former colony have recently improved, and there is talk of a possible visit to Cuba by King Juan Carlos.

Cuba has also invited Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada for a visit, though his government has not announced a decision. Canada has angered some U.S. politicians because of its large investments on the island.

John Paul, long a critic of economic embargoes as hurting only the poor, criticized U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba during his trip, a move welcomed by the Castro government.

Vatican officials insist that John Paul’s Jan. 21-25 pilgrimage shows that gains can be made by high-level visits to the island.

Cuba has released more than 200 prisoners, including some dissidents, whose names were on a list given to the Cuban government by the Vatican during John Paul’s visit.

John Paul also sought a prisoner release during his visit to Nigeria last month, but the military rulers of the African country have made no gesture so far.

Catholic charities have poured some dlrs 25 million in humanitarian assistance to Cuba over the past five years and are now moving to expand their work, said Eber Ferrer, chief of the Latin American section of Caritas International.

That includes providing training and seeking credits for cooperatives and small enterprises such as handicraft makers, he said.

``In the past we supervised aid. Now it’s time to move ahead. There’s a new reality,″ he said.

Church officials have no illusions about sudden change on the island, or of any great push by the government to open up society. Though the papal Masses were televised live on the island in a concession to the Vatican, the Cuban church would like regular television time to spread its message.

During talks last month at the Vatican _ the second in a few weeks centering on Cuba _ U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave the Vatican a list of political prisoners Washington wants freed as well as 12 prisoners freed but later rearrested.

Still, Vatican and American church officials interviewed said the Havana government does seem intent on keeping relations moving ahead.

Bishop William Murphy of Boston was in Cuba during the pope’s visit and returned two weeks ago, meeting with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

``Ortega is cautiously optimistic,″ Murphy said.

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