In this photo from Dec. 12, 2014, Franciscan Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley attends a Eucharist celebration at the St. Peter's Basilica held by Pope Francis in Vatican City, Vatican. O'Malley asked Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel to pardon peaceful protesters detained after the July 11 anti-government demonstrations.

In this photo from Dec. 12, 2014, Franciscan Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley (L) attends a Eucharist celebration at the St. Peter's Basilica held by Pope Francis in Vatican City, Vatican. O'Malley asked Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel to pardon peaceful protesters detained after the July 11 anti-government demonstrations. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images/TNS)

The archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, asked Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel in a recent meeting to pardon peaceful protesters detained after the July 11 anti-government demonstrations and allow Catholic groups to send humanitarian aid to the embattled island during a visit last week.

In a “very cordial meeting” on Thursday, the cardinal asked Díaz-Canel “for clemency for those involved in the demonstrations in a nonviolent way,” according to a first-person account of the trip to Cuba published on his blog last weekend.

Cubalex, an organization that provides legal aid to Cuban government critics, has verified at least 922 detentions linked to the July protests. Another 98 cases are under review.

O’Malley also appealed to the Cuban leader “to make it more possible for Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis to be able to send aid to Cuba through the Catholic Charities organizations of the dioceses of Cuba.” He said the intention was to support the work of the Cuban Church with the elderly “and address the scarcity of food and medicine.”

Cubans are going through widespread shortages of food, medicines and basic goods. Thousands of daily coronavirus cases have also put the health system — already strained by the lack of supplies and resources — under tremendous pressure. Cubans are turning to social media groups to buy medications and even oxygen for family members with COVID-19.

Cuban Americans wanting to help their families in Cuba have been sending food and medicines through authorized Miami-based agencies. Still, delivery by their Cuban counterparts can be delayed by several weeks or even months. Another obstacle is the limited number of flights to Cuba since the Trump administration banned U.S. commercial airlines and charter agencies from flying to Cuban cities other than Havana. And the Cuban government further limited the number of incoming flights citing COVID-19 restrictions.

Since July, the Biden administration authorized two charter companies, IBC Airways and Skyway, to fly several weekly cargo flights to the island’s major cities, including Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara, and Matanzas, to carry humanitarian aid. But so far, the Cuban government has not authorized the planes to land in other provinces except Havana.

O’Malley met Díaz-Canel on Thursday in the Palace of the Revolution. The cardinal did not make comments to the media during the trip but later posted a diary of his Caribbean tour, which included stops in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

A short note of the meeting in Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma only mentioned the cardinal’s tour of a biotech facility producing coronavirus vaccines.

In 2014, O’Malley took part in secret backchannel negotiations between the Obama administration, the Vatican and the Cuban government to restore diplomatic relations. His meeting with Díaz-Canel opened speculation among Cuba watchers that he would be carrying a message from the Biden administration, whose critics believe it would be open to engagement with Havana.

But a source who asked for anonymity said the administration did not take the opportunity provided by O’Malley’s visit to communicate with the Cuban leader.

The Biden administration is reviewing its Cuba policy but has been a vocal critic of the crackdown of the July 11 protesters, ordering sanctions against several officials and security agencies involved.

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