27/03/2012 09:33 (00:06 minutes ago)
The FINANCIAL -- 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.
In contrast to the raucous welcome Benedict received in Mexico, his
arrival in Cuba's second city of Santiago was relatively subdued.
According to London Stock Exchange, 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
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."