Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Santiago, Cuba yesterday and declared himself to be a “pilgrim of charity” while expressing his hope that the communist island nation would move toward greater openness, freedom and religious devotion.
“I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons,” the pope said in a speech delivered shortly after he arrived at the airport.
His comments were subtle but courageous, especially with Cuban president Raul Castro standing beside him on the tarmac. He told Cubans to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God,” adding that “it is touching to see how God not only respects human freedom: he almost seems to require it.”
The pope’s message took into account the liberalizing reforms the younger Castro has put into place since taking control of the government from his brother, Fidel, in 2006. It also seemed to recognize the greater role the Catholic Church has played in Cuban affairs, since the last time a pope visited the country, particularly the recent release of dozens of political prisoners which was negotiated by the Church.
Benedict’s gentler tone was in contrast to statements he made earlier aboard the papal jet when he told reporters: “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology, in the way it was conceived, no longer corresponds to reality.”
But once he arrived on Cuban soil, Benedict told the people 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.”
Raul directed his most pointed comments to the U.S. trade embargo, which has long been opposed by the Vatican. “The strongest power history has ever known has tried to strip us, fruitlessly, of the right to freedom, peace and justice,” he said, adding that the five-decade American embargo of Cuba was intended “to cause hunger and desperation and to overthrow the government.”
The New York Times reports that an estimated 200,000 people gathered for Mass in Santiago later in the day. According to a local priest, many of the worshipers were pressured to attend by their employer or local chapter of the Communist Party while dissidents were kept away.
“The worst thing that the government could do was to oblige people who don’t want to come to Mass to do so and prevent people who do want to come from coming,” said Father Jose Conrado of Santiago to the Times.
The scene did indeed bear all the signs of the usual government orchestration of mass rallies with groups holding placards announcing the name of their schools or local chapter of the Party. Reports say the government is giving paid leave to state workers who want to attend papal events.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was also given 30 minutes on highly controlled state TV last week to talk about the value of Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage.
This trip into a land ruled by a hostile government has already been politicized by many. Human rights groups were pushing for the pope to meet with Cuban dissidents, a request the Vatican has chosen not to honor. However, at the airport, Benedict did tell the people that he carried in his heart “the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans,” singling out “prisoners and their families.”
There were also rumors that the pope might meet with the Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chavez, who arrived in Cuba on Saturday night to receive more cancer treatments. The Vatican has said there is no such meeting planned.
The highlight of the Pope’s three-day visit will be a large Mass which is expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of people on Wednesday in Revolution Square in Havana.
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