ROME Cuba has not made any demands on Pope Benedict for him to condemn the 50-year-old U.S. embargo on the island when he visits next month but would welcome a new pronouncement if he decides to make it, Cuba's ambassador to the Vatican said on Wednesday.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ambassador Eduardo Delgado Bermudez also said a possible meeting between Benedict and Fidel Castro was not on the programme "for now" but could not exclude it. He said Castro was in "excellent" overall health.
Delgado, 69, said Cuba saw the visit by Benedict as an opportunity to further deepen Church-state relations on the communist island, which have improved tremendously since the historic 1998 visit by Pope John Paul, who condemned the embargo several times.
"Frankly speaking, we have no 'shopping list' for this visit," he told Reuters at the Cuban embassy, near the Vatican.
"We will receive him with respect and appreciation. That is our greatest desire, both of the government and the people of Cuba, and not just the Catholics," he said in Spanish.
The embargo, which marked its 50th anniversary on February 7 and which Cubans call "the blockade", is still the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean island 90 miles (145 km) from Florida, although it has failed to meet its primary objective of undermining the Castro government.
Washington imposed the near-total trade embargo at the height of the Cold War to punish Havana for its support of the Soviet Union and in the hope it would bring an end to communism on the island. Cuba says the embargo has cost the island nearly $1 trillion, a figure many experts consider inflated.
"The position of the Holy See is against the embargo, which is the position of 99.99 percent of humanity," Delgado said, noting that every fall at the United Nations General Assembly, a vast majority of nations backed a resolution condemning it.
"We are not asking anything specific from the pope but if His Holiness feels that there has to be a new pronouncement (on the embargo), he will do it. But Cuba has not made any requests or set any pre-conditions ... we are not asking, we are not begging, we are not soliciting for the help of others," he said.
"It would be welcome it but it's not that we're hoping for it (at all costs)," he said.
Last week a senior Vatican official told Reuters that Benedict wanted to see Fidel Castro but it would depend on the health of the 85-year-old leader who ruled Cuba for 49 years before his brother succeeded him in 2008.
At present, the 84-year-old German pope is only scheduled to meet Fidel Castro's younger brother, President Raul Castro, 80, whose formal title is president of the Council of State and president of the Council of Ministers.
Raul Castro is due to welcome the pope at Santiago de Cuba on March 26, hold private talks with him in Havana on March 27, and see the pontiff off when he leaves Havana for Rome on March 28.
But Delgado would not be drawn on the possibility of a meeting between Benedict and Fidel Castro during the trip. "It is not on the programme for now," he said.
Delgado, asked about Fidel Castro's health, denied that he was suffering from cancer.
"Fidel is in good health. His health has improved. Mentally he is in perfect shape. As far as walking and moving about he has difficultly but in general, his health is excellent," Delgado said.
The elder Castro now seldom appears in public, but occasionally meets in private with visiting foreign leaders and writes columns about international affairs.
Cuban state media reported that Fidel Castro took part in a nine-hour session with writers and intellectuals last week.
One purpose of the papal visit is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Cuba's most famous religious icon, the statue of the Virgin of Charity.
Last month a replica of the statue completed a 16-month pilgrimage around the island that was the first such religious display since the 1950s.
It was another signal of improved relations between the government and the Catholic Church, which were at odds for many years following the 1959 revolution.
Relations began to warm in the 1990s, a process that was aided by John Paul's 1998 visit and intensified in 2010 when the Church brokered a deal with Castro to release political prisoners.
Delgado said John Paul's visit had helped to make Church-state relations on the island "much more fluid" but he did not think there would be any "great surprises" related to the trip, such as in 1998, when the government reinstated Christmas day as a national holiday.
Benedict's visit to Cuba is part of a March 23-28 trip that will take him first to Mexico.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella)