SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, gently pressing the island’s longtime communist leaders to push through “legitimate” reforms their people desire, while also criticizing the excesses of capitalism.
In contrast to the raucous welcome Benedict received in Mexico, his arrival in Cuba’s second city was relatively subdued: While President Raul Castro greeted him at the airport with a 21-cannon salute and military honor guard, few ordinary Cubans lined Benedict’s motorcade route into town and the pope barely waved from his glassed-in popemobile.
Santiago’s main plaza, however, came alive when Benedict arrived for his evening Mass, his main public event in Cuba’s second city before he heads Tuesday to Havana. While the plaza was not fully packed there was a festive atmosphere, with Cubans dancing to the rhythms of a samba band awaiting Benedict’s arrival, waving small Cuban and Vatican flags.
“It is a message of love, this visit,” said Jorgelina Guevara, a 59-year-old homemaker as she waited for the Mass to begin. “The Cuban people need it.”
The trip comes 14 years after John Paul’s historic tour, when the Polish pope who helped bring down communism in his homeland admonished Fidel Castro to free prisoners of conscience, end abortion and let the Roman Catholic Church take its place in society.
Benedict’s message as he arrived was subtle, taking into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over from his older brother in 2006 and the greater role the Catholic Church has played in Cuban affairs, most recently in negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners.
The pontiff, who at the start of his trip said Marxism “no longer responds to reality,” gave a much gentler message upon arriving on Cuban soil, saying he wanted to inspire and encourage Cubans on the island and beyond.
“I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be,” he said. “Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need.”
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious liberty and has good relations with all religious institutions. He also criticized the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
“We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less,” Castro said, adding that his country remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by “the most forceful power that history has ever known” — a reference to the United States — to thwart the island’s socialist model.
The two men greeted each other with clasped hands and wide smiles after the pope arrived on a special Alitalia flight that flew Cuban and Vatican flags from the cockpit as it taxied along the tarmac.
Benedict’s three-day stay in Cuba inevitably sparked comparisons to his predecessor’s, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Benedict referred repeatedly to John Paul in his speech Monday, saying his visit was a “gentle breath of fresh air” that gave strength to the church on the island.
He also denounced the ills of capitalism — a theme he has touched on frequently amid the global financial crisis but which took on particular significance in one of the world’s last remaining Marxist systems. Benedict bemoaned a “profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.”
Late Monday, Benedict celebrated an outdoor Mass in the colonial city’s main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a bishops’ miter. Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, where he will briefly pray in a private.
The statue, which is revered by Cubans Catholic and not, was brought to the Mass on the top of a truck to the joy of the faithful present.
“She is a beauty, the most extraordinary thing,” Mercy Serra said as the statue made its way through the crowd. “She is the mother of all Cubans.”
Cuban state television broadcast the Mass live, even turning over some of the commentary to a Catholic monsignor.
Among those in the crowd were a few hundred Cuban exiles from the United States who flew into Santiago on special charter flights.
“It really does exists, the place where I was born in,” said Rita Freixas of Miami Beach, with tears welling up in her eyes. Freixas, who left when she was just one year old, said she nearly came back in 1998 for John Paul’s visit. “But my father had just died and he had been in the Bay of Pigs, and I just felt that somehow I would have betrayed him if I had come then.”
She arrived with her two grown sons and her best friend. She said now is a different time from 1998, and to be able to share this experience with her children was incredible. She said with a laugh that was she was waiting for the pope, and her two sons had gone off in search of cigars.
Benedict will only be in Cuba for a little over 48 hours, and his limited schedule is sure to disappoint many who want a piece of his attention, from the dissident community, to returning Cuban American exiles and even representatives of imprisoned U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross.
The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with any of them, citing his advanced age and need for rest. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as “El Comandante.”
A new wild card entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked whether the pope might meet with Chavez and said that as of Sunday, there were no such plans.
The one confirmed meeting is the pope’s Tuesday encounter with Raul Castro in Havana.
Since taking over from Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro has ushered in a series of economic reforms, legalizing a real estate market, opening the door to limited private enterprise and turning over vast tracts of fallow government land to independent, small time farmers. Pressed by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, he has also cleared Cuba’s jails of the last of 75 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown.
Cuba denies it holds any political prisoners now. Officials refer to dissidents as mercenaries in the sway of its U.S. enemies. Human rights groups say some Cubans remain jailed for their political activities.
Despite the challenge of meeting the expectations of so many, Benedict has demonstrated an ability to surprise during his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America.
In Mexico, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff whose appeal can’t compete with his predecessor’s. Some 350,000 people welcomed him warmly at a Mass on Sunday.
The reception was inevitably less fervent in Cuba, where only about 10 percent of the people are practicing Catholics.
The island’s Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul’s 1998 visit further warmed relations, and today the church is the most influential independent institution in Cuba, and magazines it operates have published frank articles calling for change.
But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
Lack of enthusiasm for the Church predates the 1959 Cuban Revolution. From the early years under Spanish colonial rule, Catholicism was the religion of the ruling elite while believers of Afro-Cuban faiths were forced to hide their ceremonies and mask their deities behind Catholic saints.
Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, including Santeria, and evangelism is on the rise with some 600,000 Cubans believed to be part of Protestant and or evangelical denominations, less than Catholics but rising.