President Barack Obama made an unscheduled visit Thursday to a Miami church popular with Cuban exiles as the U.S. moves toward re-establishing ties with Cuba.
The White House said Obama made the unannounced stop at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity to "honor the sacrifices that Cuban-Americans have made in their pursuit of liberty and opportunity as well as their extraordinary contributions to our country."
The president said "hola'' to a group of worshippers as he arrived and got a tour of the church.
The Miami shrine features a replica of a statue of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady of Charity, which was found floating on the coast of Cuba by fishermen. The original statue is at the shrine of El Cobre near Santiago, Cuba.
Miami's politically powerful Cuban diaspora largely opposes the Obama administration's desire to lift the long-standing economic embargo on the Castro government. But four Democratic U.S. senators who visited Havana this week say there is growing support in Congress to lift the embargo, end the travel ban for U.S. citizens and promote economic engagement with Cuba.
Obama made history in December when he said his administration would seek to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time since 1961. U.S. and Cuban diplomats are working out the details of opening embassies in each other's capitals. Also, the president's visit Thursday came one day before a 45-day period expires for Congress to challenge Obama's decision to take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Florida is just 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Cuba. For more than 50 years, its largest city, Miami, has been the primary destination for Cubans wanting to come to the U.S.
Some information for this report came from AP and Reuters.