“Pray” and “beg for a miracle” that the U.S. embargo of Cuba will end, the leader of this island nation’s National Assembly told a visiting group of 15 U.S. church leaders here Nov. 28 at the beginning of their five-day visit.

“It has been proven that in difficult situations, American politicians listen to religious leaders,” said Ricardo Alarcon, National Assembly president and former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. “Churches in America are the social heart of their communities, so I am not asking you to take a political position but to express the humanitarian principles on which we all agree.”

In remarks that were far more pointed than those he has expressed in previous meetings with some of these same U.S. religious leaders, Alarcon said, “The embargo is not hurting the Cuban government, but only the Cuban people. It [the embargo] is only trying to turn people against a revolution they support by provoking hunger, suffering and desperation.”

Alarcon outlined the history of conflict between Cuba and the U.S., which he said “goes all the way back to the very beginning of both our countries.” He insisted that he is “not trying to blame anyone, but from the time of Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. has been trying to incorporate Cuba ― what we call ‘annexism.’ From that moment until now we have been facing that obstacle.

Alarcon said Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president that has “truly sought normalization of relations between the two countries,” adding “the only condition we have ever placed on normalization of relations is that it be based on equality and mutual respect by both countries, but for our small country that desire has always been usurped by U.S. power.”

Cuba is changing and the U.S. should too, Alarcon said. In recent months, under the government of Raul Castro, private property ownership (houses and cars) has been reinstituted; “self-employment” has been encouraged, particularly in the farming and commercial sectors; and this week the Cuban government announced the extension of credit to private individuals to encourage small farms and small businesses.

Next year, Alarcon, said, “the National Assembly will reform the tax code to reflect these new economic realities.”

The goal of the reforms “is not to abandon the basic elements of the revolution,” Alarcon said, “but to improve them … The goal is to radically diminish the presence of government without abandoning the principles of socialism ― the right to free health care, free education, retirement income and personal protection through social assistance.”

The economic problems Cuba faces are not just Cuba’s problems, nor the U.S.’s, Alarcon said. “These are global problems, brought by globalization and the efficient use of our resources, of everyone’s resources, is a global effort.”

For instance, Cuba has historically relied on food imports, and with global food prices rising dramatically, countries like Cuba are particularly hard-hit. Cuban churches have tried to step into the breach, encouraging and training people and communities to increase domestic food production through family and community gardens.

“But there is a limit,” Alarcon said, “to what our government and churches can do in response to this global problem.”

Alarcon thanked the U.S. churches “for all they have done to try and end the conflicts between our countries. The reality is that we are neighbors.”

Cuban religious leaders praised Alarcon as “a friend of the churches” and National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon presented a gift to Alarcon, calling him “an honorary ecumenist.”