Cuba welcomes Pope Benedict
Benedict will arrive at the island nation from Mexico, where he denounced drug wars and violence Friday in a visit scheduled just months ahead of its presidential elections. He also blasted Cuba’s Marxist political system, saying it “no longer corresponds to reality.”
The pope’s comments, delivered to reporters aboard a flight from Rome to Mexico, sparked speculation over what he will say once he addresses the Cuban people directly.
The island’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, responding to the comment, said his government considers “the exchange of ideas useful” and is still perfecting its system.
Benedict is due to arrive Monday afternoon at the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, flying to the Cuban capital the following day and celebrating Mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza on Wednesday.
Large crowds are expected to turn out in both cities as preparations for the visit have been under way, with fresh coats of paint splashed across buildings and posters announcing his arrival tacked across city structures.
The trip is timed to the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, but uncertainty looms over what will be said, whom the pope will meet and what the visit will mean for Cubans.
“For me, I’m very happy he’s coming,” said Juana DeArmas, a shopkeeper in the capital’s Old Havana neighborhood. “I was here when (Pope) John Paul came, and there were always plenty of tourists that followed.”
The visit is hoped to give a tourism boost to the island’s cash-strapped economy as many residents look to make use of a series of recent free market reforms that have slowly swelled the number of private businesses in the country.
Fourteen years earlier, a much different Fidel Castro greeted a much different pontiff when thousands were introduced to Pope John Paul II, who made the historic first papal trip to Cuba in 1998.
Having been invited by then-President Castro, John Paul famously urged the country “to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba.”
“There was a kind of love affair between John Paul and Latin America,” said CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen. “It just isn’t the same with Pope Benedict.”
In Mexico, an archbishop called on worshippers to stop making comparisons between Benedict and the former pope, who drew massive crowds across Latin America and visited every country in the region before he died in 2005.
In Cuba, though John Paul helped warm church-government relations, the island’s current ties with religion remain complicated.
Decades earlier, Castro’s Communist revolution sought to stamp out religious influence in Cuba, confiscating church property and expelling religious workers, some of whom had supported anti-Castro rebels.
The country was officially an atheist state until the 1990s, when the constitution was amended. Christmas was recognized as a holiday and Communist party members were permitted to openly practice their faith, if they had one.
Church officials now say the island is about 60% Catholic, though few openly practice.
Still, religious access to state television and the administering of religious schools remain largely restricted, which could be a point of emphasis during the pontiff’s trip, observers say.
“These papal visits can have an impact,” Allen said. “They can kind of jar things lose. And it seems that under Raul, Cuba is taking baby steps toward normalization.”
Many on the island seem skeptical that the trip will yield lasting results. While the country’s Roman Catholic Church has been lauded for its role in recent reforms, it’s also received heavy criticism for appearing too cozy with the government. Rights group say the island has largely emptied its jails of political prisoners, but continues to harass the country’s activists.
Benedict is scheduled to meet President Raul Castro and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Santiago de Cuba on Monday, and again in Havana, along with the president’s family, which could include Fidel Castro, who stepped down from power in 2006 after battling illness.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also arrived on the island Saturday, according to Cuban state television, which reported he is there to undergo further radiation treatment.
It is not clear whether Benedict will meet Chavez, who is battling cancer.