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The papal visit

Administration readying plan to ease Cuba travel restrictions

Cuba graphic August 19, 1997
Web posted at: 1:33 p.m. EDT (1733 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Clinton Administration wants to make travel to Cuba easier for pilgrims during Pope John Paul II's visit early next year, State Department officials said Monday.

"(O)ut of respect for His Holiness, we are facilitating travel and the delivery of certain goods for the purpose of that trip," James Rubin, spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told the New York Times.

Among the temporary provisions under consideration is a plan to grant special licenses to large groups, presumably organized through the Catholic Church. Anonymous administration officials told The Times that the archdiocese of Miami had requested permission to send a cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 people to Cuba for the pope's visit.

The administration is also considering allowing direct charter flights from Miami to Cuba for the papal visit, which is scheduled January 21-25, 1998, CNN reported in May. Currently, U.S. visitors to Cuba must travel to the island nation via a third country.

The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba does not ban travel outright, but severely restricts how U.S. citizens and U.S. residents spend money in Cuba. The embargo also limits relief supplies, but it is expected the administration will propose some easing of those restrictions for the official visit so that Catholic agencies in the United States can aid the Cuban church's preparations.

Some members of Congress oppose the administration's plan.

"This is an end run on the embargo," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Times. The Florida Republican's district contains a sizable population of Cuban-Americans. "If you want to listen to the pope, buy his tapes or visit him somewhere else."

Catholic agencies disagree.

"We believe the restrictions should be lifted," Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Catholic Conference told the Times, "even if the pope weren't coming."

The Vatican opposes the embargo, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, on the grounds that it does more damage to the Cuban people than to the communist government.

Senior administration sources have told CNN that a decision is expected by fall.

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