By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Friday condemned the U.S. embargo against Cuba ahead of Pope Benedict's trip there next week and said the pontiff was willing to meet Fidel Castro.
"The Holy See believes that the embargo is something that makes the people suffer the consequences. It does not achieve the aim of the greater good," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
"The Holy See does not believe it is a positive or useful measure," he said in response to a question at a briefing about Benedict's trip to Mexico and Cuba from March 23-28.
The embargo, which marked its 50th anniversary last month and which Cubans call "the blockade", is still the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean island 90 miles from Florida, although it has failed to meet its primary objective of undermining Castro's communist 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 it nearly $1 trillion, a figure many experts consider inflated.
Lombardi would not be drawn on whether the pope would specifically condemn the embargo, as the late Pope John Paul did several times during his historic trip to Cuba in 1998.
Cuba's ambassador to the Vatican told Reuters last month Havana had not made any demands on Benedict to condemn the embargo but would welcome a new pronouncement if he decided to make it.
One unanswered question about the trip is whether the pope, who will be in Cuba from March 26-28, will meet 85-year-old Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years after leading its revolution 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 of the Council of Ministers.
"It is possible. It is not in the program ... but obviously if he (Fidel Castro) desires to meet the Holy Father, the Holy Father will be available," Lombardi said.
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.
The ailing elder Castro now seldom appears in public, but occasionally privately meets visiting foreign leaders and writes columns about international affairs.
Cuban state media reported that Fidel Castro participated in a nine-hour meeting with writers and intellectuals last month.
Lombardi said there were no meetings with Cuban dissidents on the pope's program and refused to be drawn on whether he expected the pope to discuss human rights issues.
In Havana, police on Thursday removed 13 Cuban dissidents from a Catholic church they had occupied for three days in an attempt to get the pope to press for change during his visit.
Church spokesman Orlando Marquez said in a statement published in Communist Party newspaper Granma that police were called in after repeated efforts had failed to persuade the dissidents to leave the church in central Havana.
The brief operation brought to an end an incident the Church had denounced as "illegitimate and irresponsible" and that threatened to blemish the pope's visit.
The Church, which has helped dissidents in the past, wants the pope's visit to be smooth and harmonious and show off much-improved church-state relations in Cuba.
Relations began to warm in the 1990s, a process that was aided by John Paul's visit and intensified in 2010 when the Church brokered a deal with Castro to release political prisoners.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana; editing by Barry Moody)