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Wednesday, January 21, 1998 Published at 22:20 GMT

World: Americas

Pope calls for US policy change on Cuba
image: [ The Pope making a first speech on arrival in Cuba ]
The Pope making a first speech on arrival in Cuba

The Pope has called on the United States to reconsider its economic embargo on Cuba.

He was speaking to reporters on the flight from Rome to Havana for his first visit to the Communist nation.

Asked if he had any message for the United States about the 35-year-old embargo, he replied: "To change, to change."

But a State Department spokesman in Washington implicitly rejected a call by Pope John Paul on Wednesday for Washington to "change" its economic embargo against Cuba, saying it was a U.S. law supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

"We understand and respect the Pope's views opposing the use of economic sanctions in Cuba and elsewhere.

"I would also note that the Pope has also been critical of oppression and violations of human rights around the world. We are sure that he will remain consistent in his message to the people of Cuba."

The Pope told reporters he would speak about human rights during his five-day visit to Cuba.

Arrival ceremony

The Cuban President, Fidel Castro, greeted him at the steps of his plane.

Mr Castro, who had replaced his traditional green uniform with a blue suit and tie, shook hands warmly with him, and the two men exchanged a few words.

The pope then greeted four children who presented him with a dish containing a map of Cuba made out of soil, which he kissed.

On past papal trips, the pope used to kiss the tarmac upon landing. He has stopped performing this ceremony since his health deteriorated.

In a speech at the airport, the Pope said he hoped Cuba would open up to the world, and in return the world would open up to Cuba.

Mr Castro also made a speech, saying the United States was trying to strangle Cuba with its long-standing economic embargo.

Good-humoured, the Pope joked about the state of his fragile health, which is sure to be in the spotlight on the gruelling trip.

"Obviously it's not what it was in 1979, but providence is sustaining me," the frail 77-year-old Pontiff told reporters.

The Pope, who has travelled the world like no other Roman Catholic leader before him, has battled ill health, operations and accidents during his 19-year reign.

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