SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (Reuters) - Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba on Monday and told the government it had nothing to fear from the Catholic Church, asking for more freedoms to help the communist country in times of change.
Just three days after saying that communism no longer works in Cuba, the pope took a softer stance as he landed in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba for a three-day trip aimed at boosting the Church’s role on the island.
The 84-year-old German pope delivered a carefully worded, nuanced and balanced arrival address after he was greeted warmly by President Raul Castro, dressed in a dark suit, accompanied by a full Honor Guard and artillery gun salute.
He was less direct in his criticism of Cuba’s one-party political system than he had been when speaking to reporters on Friday, although he did offer some thinly veiled phrases addressing Cuba’s human rights record.
“I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be,” he said, including the “sufferings” of prisoners and their families, a reference likely to be well received by political dissidents on the island as well as Cuban American exiles in the United States.
Visiting 14 years after Pope John Paul II’s landmark trip to Cuba, Benedict called that trip, which was a highlight of improved Church-state relations after decades of hostility that followed the 1959 revolution, “a gentle breath of fresh air”.
But he said that while great strides had been made in improving relations with the Church, “many areas remain in which greater progress can and ought to be made, especially as regards the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society”.
Benedict, who visited Mexico over the weekend, is trying to cement the Church’s recent gains in Cuba and offer more help in assuring that whatever transition comes is buffered by its social programs, such as care centers for the elderly and limited after-school and adult education programs.
Raul Castro, younger brother of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel, delivered a firm political lecture about the injustices of the United States’ hostility toward Cuba, including the economic embargo, and the island’s “tenacious resistance” to preserve its independence and “follow its own path.”
Castro, who was raised as a Catholic, grasped both hands of the pope and briefly bowed before him as Benedict stepped onto the airport tarmac. When the wind blew the pontiff’s white vestments around his head, the Cuban leader gently put them back across his shoulders.
The president later was in the front row as Benedict celebrated an open-air Mass for tens of thousands of people in Santiago’s Revolution Square.
Raul Castro has used the Church as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward with reforms to Cuba’s struggling Soviet-style economy.
They include slashing a million government jobs and freeing up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise.
It has supported Castro’s reforms and urged him to move farther and faster in modernizing Cuba, both economically and politically.
Benedict fired an unexpected salvo on Friday when he told reporters on his plane that communism in Cuba had failed and a new economic model was needed, adding that the Church was willing to offer its help “to avoid traumas.”
The Cuban government offered a diplomatic response to the Pope’s criticism, saying that Cuba would “listen with all respect” to the Pope and welcomed “the exchange of ideas.”
In what appeared to be an effort to balance his remarks, Benedict made an apparent dig at capitalist greed on Monday, blaming the global economic crisis on “the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.”
Cuba is going through a key moment in its history, Benedict said, hinting that with the advancing age of the Castro brothers the island was “already looking to the future.”
Echoing the words of Pope John Paul who in 1998 urged Cuba to “open itself up to the world,” and “the world to open itself up to Cuba,” Benedict also recognized that Cuba was making an effort to “renew and broaden its horizons.”
Church officials say Benedict’s schedule has not allowed for meetings with dissidents, who say Castro’s government flouts human rights and suppresses their voices.
The dissident movement Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of Catholic women that campaigns for the release of political prisoners, said it had been told by Cuban authorities to keep clear of the pope’s Mass in Santiago.
“They are going to present the pope with a facade, not with the true Cuba,” said Ana Celia Rodriguez, a 42-year-old mother of three who is planning to try to attend anyway.
“I really don’t expect much change from the pope’s visit. He’ll see a Cuba that doesn’t exist. My message for the pope is that he ought to see how things really are.”
More than 70 members of the Ladies in White were detained briefly last week, fueling concerns that the government, which views opponents as mercenaries of the United States, might clamp down to prevent public demonstrations during the pope’s stay.
While many Cubans complain about the socialist economy’s failings, not everyone agrees with the Pope’s bleak assessment of Cuban communism.
“We’re so happy the Pope is coming, it makes us feel as though the world is noticing us,” said Alejandro Linares, a 23-year-old university student from the eastern province of Guantanamo, a small image of revolutionary icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara dangling around his neck.
“We want him to see our Cuba. We want him to see that we live pretty well here and that we want to be socialist, not capitalist.”
Earlier on Monday, two airplanes arrived in Santiago from Miami carrying 310 mostly Cuban American faithful on a special Church-organized package to attend the papal Masses. The Miami pilgrims brought a message of reconciliation, said the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski. “It’s important that we overcome the resentments and hatred of the past,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks and Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Adams and Kieran Murray