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President Obama meets Cuban cardinal on first day of historic visit

President Obama is greeted by Cardinal Jaime Ortega last night (AP)

Barack Obama has met Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the Archbishop of Havana, on a visit to Cuba to strengthen diplomatic ties.

The meeting last night at Havana Cathedral came on the first day of President Obama’s visit, which is the first time since 1928 that a sitting US President has gone to Cuba.

Last August Cardinal Ortega praised the “very promising” re-opening of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba and said the Church would play a part in the process.

The cardinal helped bring about the December 2014 agreement between the US and Cuba to begin normalising relations – a process dubbed the “Cuban Thaw”. Pope Francis played a key role as mediator, working behind the scenes to bring the two sides together.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said: “The Cardinal, along with Pope Francis, was particularly helpful in supporting the agreement on December 17th to normalize relations.”

Rhodes said the meeting would “provide the opportunity to mark the important role of the Catholic Church in the lives of the Cuban people, and in the increasing relations between our two countries.”

Cardinal Ortega was imprisoned in a labour camp in 1967 under the Castro regime, which suppressed Catholicism. He has criticised communism while warning that capitalism also has serious dangers. He has also criticised a “species of American subculture that invades everything: It is a fashion, a conception of life”.

Pope Francis visited Cuba in September, when he called for a “revolution of tenderness”, and again in February, when it was the site of his historic meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.