Fidel Castro confirms he will meet with the pope
By PETER ORSI and ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
HAVANA -- Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and renewal "for the
greater good of all Cubans" before the nation's patron saint Tuesday,
but the island's communist leaders quickly rejected the Roman Catholic
leader's appeal for political change after five decades of one-party rule.
The exchange came hours before Fidel Castro confirmed that he would
happily meet with Benedict before he leaves for Rome on Wednesday.
Castro made the much-awaited announcement at the end of a short opinion
piece posted on a government website late Tuesday, saying he had decided
to ask for "a few minutes of his busy time."
Expectations of a meeting have dominated Benedict's three-day visit to
Cuba, which culminates with a morning Mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza.
On Tuesday, Benedict had a 55-minute closed-door meeting with Fidel's
brother, President Raul Castro, in which the pontiff proposed that Good
Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, be made a holiday.
There was no immediate response. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev.
Federico Lombardi, said it was natural for the government to take time
to consider such a request, which followed on the Cuban government's
decision to declare Christmas a national holiday after Pope John Paul
II's 1998 visit.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be
a sign of a positive step - as was the case of Christmas after John
Paul's visit," Lombardi said.
Asked if the pope raised the matter of political prisoners or Alan
Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison
in Cuba on spy charges, Lombardi said "requests of a humanitarian
nature" came up, but he had no information about whether individual
cases were discussed.
Benedict spent nearly twice as long with Castro as he normally does with
heads of state, which Lombardi attributed to the pontiff's desire to get
to know the man.
Days after dismissing the Marxist ideology on which the Cuban system is
based, Benedict continued to gently press themes highly sensitive to
Cuban government in his prayer and short speech at the sanctuary of the
Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country,
advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of
all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the
needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those
who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of
It wasn't long before a top official back in Havana responded.
"In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo,
Cuba's economic czar and a vice president.
The pope has kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to
interpretation, but Murillo's comments left no room for doubt, and they
were quickly picked up by pro-government blogs and on Twitter accounts.
Raul Castro has said that opening up Cuba's political system would
inevitably spell doom for its socialist project since any alternative
party would be dominated by enemies across the Florida Straits and beyond.
Alfredo Mesa, a Cuban-American National Foundation board member whose
trip to Cuba was organized by the Miami Archdiocese, said the
government's strong reaction would reinforce the pope's message and the
need for change.
"I'd rather have them say this now than tomorrow," Mesa said.