Children pray at the Father Usera daycare center in Havana
By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba on Wednesday launched its annual campaign for a United Nations resolution condemning the U.S. economic embargo while the White House and the Vatican added their own pressure on the U.S. Congress to end the 53-year-old sanctions.
The Vatican has long opposed the Cold War-era embargo, saying ordinary Cubans suffer most from its effects, and Havana is counting on hearing that message when Pope Francis visits for three nights starting Saturday before continuing on to the United States.
Although the pope is expected to note the Vatican's opposition to the embargo during his U.S. trip he will not dwell on the issue so as not to be seen as interfering in U.S. politics and risk it backfiring, a Vatican official said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who nine months ago announced a historic rapprochement with the Communist-ruled island, did his own campaigning against the embargo on Wednesday, asking an influential Washington business lobby to urge Congress to remove it.
This year's U.N. vote, set for Oct. 27, will be the 24th time Cuba has marshaled international support against the embargo but the first since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro stunned the world last December by announcing they would seek to restore diplomatic ties and work to normalize relations. Pope Francis helped broker the deal.
Cuba usually wins overwhelming support for its move, and this year there will be interest in how the United States votes given that Obama has called the embargo a failure, reversing a foreign policy tool of 10 previous U.S. presidents.
Although Obama has taken steps to ease trade and travel restrictions, only the U.S. Congress can remove the embargo completely. The Republican majority leadership and some in Obama's own Democratic Party say it should remain in place as long as the one-party state represses political opponents in Cuba and holds a monopoly over the media.
Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez told a news conference his country "appreciates and recognizes" Obama's policy change on the embargo. But he also said Cuba would not make concessions to get the U.S. Congress to lift it, saying "Cuba is not going to make internal changes."
HUGE MAJORITY SUPPORT
For 23 previous years Cuba has won a nonbinding resolution with votes pitting most of the world against Washington and a handful of allies. For the past two years, 188 countries voted in favor, with only the United States and Israel voting against.
Cuba estimates the embargo has caused $121 billion in damage to its economy. Speaking to the Business Roundtable, a Washington lobbying group for corporate chief executives, Obama said lifting it would benefit U.S. companies.
"My biggest suggestion would be for the BRT just to start having conversations on a bipartisan basis on lifting the embargo. It doesn't necessarily have to happen or even should happen all in one fell swoop, but I think you look at the economic opportunities that are provided, they are significant," he said.
Francis travels from Cuba to Washington, where he will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress next Thursday.
Two Vatican officials speaking on conditions of anonymity said they did not expect the embargo issue to loom large during the trip, particularly not during his time in the United States.
The pope does not want to "rock the boat" at a delicate time, one of the officials said.
"He's not going to hit Congress over the head about the embargo," one of the officials said. "That could backfire and our position on the embargo has always been clear."
After the pope's visit, Castro will follow Francis to New York to hear him speak at the United Nations.
Castro himself will make his first speech at the United Nations since becoming president. Castro, 84, took over from his ailing brother Fidel provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008.
He could also meet with Obama at the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders. Both are scheduled to speak on Sept. 28.
"I imagine there will be interactions between the two presidents, but I can say that no meeting between the two of them is set," Rodriguez said.
Fidel Castro, now retired at age 89, holds the record for the longest speech at the United Nations, at 4-1/2 hours. "We shall endeavor to be brief," he told the U.N. General Assembly in 1960, before launching into his marathon address.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Jaime Hamre in Havana; Editing by Frances Kerry)