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Wednesday, January 21, 1998 Published at 19:36 GMT


Has the time come to lift the embargo?
image: [ The trade embargo was intended to cripple Cuba's economy ]
The trade embargo was intended to cripple Cuba's economy

For the United States, the Pope's visit to Cuba is potentially one of the most important turning points on the issue which has dominated the public imagination for the last 40 years. Officials of the Clinton administration and members of Congress will be watching closely to see what impact the Papal visit will have on the renewed debate on whether to lift the 35-year-old trade embargo designed to bring down Fidel Castro's communist regime. Our US Affairs Analyst, Maurice Walsh, examines how the Pope's visit to Cuba will have reverberations in Washington.

For the last few weeks throughout South Florida, the Cuban exiles who in 30 years have turned Miami into arguably the most important Latin American city have taken part in preparatory prayers and processions as if the Pope were arriving there and not in Havana.

[ image: One of the many huge murals celebrating the pope's visit]
One of the many huge murals celebrating the pope's visit
From Miami, New York and Boston chartered jets will take lay pilgrims, bishops and cardinals to see the Pope celebrate Mass in Cuba. In some cases members of families who fled the island since Fidel Castro took power have differed over whether to return to see the Pope or stay put.

Their dilemma mirrors the political debate in the United States over whether the time has come to lift the trade embargo that has cut Cuba off from what was until four decades ago its most important trading partner. In advance of the Pope's visit President Clinton reiterated his willingness to engage with Cuba only if Fidel Castro opens up first.

But during the next few days the Pope is likely to repeat his denunciation of the US embargo, giving encouragement to the coalition of political and business groups in the US who in recent weeks have renewed their campaign to have it lifted or at least relaxed. For Washington the long term impact of the next few days on policy towards Cuba looks entirely unpredictable.

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