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Obama makes a surprise visit to a Cuban community church

29 May 2015, 10:33

Miami - President Barack Obama paid a surprise visit on Thursday to a Miami religious shrine popular with Cuban exiles, amid moves by Washington and Havana to normalise ties after five decades of enmity.

"The president is visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami to pay his respects to the Cuban-American diaspora that worships there," said Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman.

"He will honour the sacrifices that Cuban-Americans have made in their pursuit of liberty and opportunity, as well as their extraordinary contributions to our country."

The visit carries dual political significance.

The Catholic Church, up to and including Pope Francis has been deeply involved in efforts to thaw ties between Havana and Washington.

Francis will visit the White House in September.

Meanwhile, many of Miami's older, more conservative Cuban emigre population, who still play an outsized role in US electoral politics, are skeptical about Obama's moves to restore ties with the Communist island.

The White House will want to reassure them Obama's motives are noble.

Inside the shrine, Obama stood before a vast brown and cream mural depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Christopher Columbus and Cuban national hero Jose Marti.

Also read: Bill Clinton hopes to keep working, whatever Hillary does


It is an "obvious attempt to show deference for the Cuban-American community, while he continues to pursue his controversial policy of engaging the Castro regime," said Sebastian Arcos, of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute.

That policy will take a step forward on Friday, when Cuba is due to be taken off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The move is part of an effort to reestablish embassies, which appeared to have stalled last week as the latest round of talks reached no deal.

"Our two governments continue to discuss the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and opening embassies in Havana, including different matters that relate to how our embassies will operate," said White House spokesperson Eric Schultz.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in December to seek a normalisation of relations frozen for five decades.

The pair held a historic first meeting in Panama last April.

But the island is still subject to a US trade embargo put in place in 1962, which Obama has called on Congress to lift.

Polls show a majority of Americans support Obama's efforts to improve ties.

According to a Pew survey from early this year, 63% of Americans want to re-establish diplomatic ties and 66% favour ending the embargo.

With Floridian politicians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush running for the Republican White house nomination, ties with Cuba are sure to be a major issue come election time.



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