Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, gently pressing the island’s long-time communist leaders to push through “legitimate” reforms their people desire.
In contrast to the raucous welcome Benedict received in Mexico, his arrival in Cuba’s second city of Santiago was relatively subdued. President Raul Castro greeted him at the airport with a 21-cannon salute and a goose-stepping military honour guard, but few ordinary Cubans lined the motorcade route into town and the Pope barely waved from his glassed-in vehicle.
Santiago’s main plaza, however, came alive when the pontiff arrived for evening mass, his main public event here before heading to Havana. While the plaza, which has a capacity of about 100,000, was not fully packed, there was a festive atmosphere, with Cubans dancing to a samba band and waving small Cuban and Vatican flags.
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 liberalising 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.”
The 84-year-old pontiff’s voice was tired, and by the end of the day he seemed exhausted after a vigorous four days of travel.
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favours complete religious liberty and has good relations with all religious institutions. He also criticised the 50-year US 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,” Mr 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 in steamy 31C temperatures.
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 on 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 defenceless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.”
Late on 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’ mitre. Raul Castro was in the front row, and went up to greet the pontiff at the end of the service.
Just before the mass began, a man near an area reserved for international press began shouting anti-government slogans such as “Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!”.
The man tried to enter the press area but he was restrained by security agents and led away. It was not clear who he was or what happened to him. The government had no immediate comment.