Pope Francis arrives in Havana, praising U.S.- Cuba thaw
By Nick Miroff September 19 at 9:35 PM
HAVANA — Pope Francis arrived in Havana on Saturday to begin a nine-day
visit to Cuba and the United States, praising the path of normalization
between the two long-estranged neighbors as “an example of
reconciliation for the entire world” that “fills us with hope.”
Francis was greeted by Cuban President Raúl Castro upon arriving from
Rome and asked in his remarks to “convey my sentiments of particular
respect and consideration to your brother Fidel,” the island’s ailing,
89-year-old former ruler.
In his brief statement, Francis called the process of detente between
Cuba and the United States — in which the Vatican played a central role
— “a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue.”
Citing Cuban national hero José Martí, Francis said a “system of
universal growth” had prevailed over “the forever-dead system of groups
If some interpreted that line as veiled criticism of the Castros’
56-year rule over the island, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico
Lombardi later told reporters it was not the pope’s intention.
In his speech welcoming Francis, Raúl Castro assured him that religious
freedom is “consecrated in Cuba’s constitution” and said his visit would
be a “transcendental and enriching experience for our nation.”
Castro repeated his gratitude for the pope’s role in facilitating
detente with Washington. “The reestablishment of relations has been a
first step in the process toward normalization of the relationship
between the two countries, which will require resolving problems and
correcting injustices,” he said.
Both speeches were broadcast live on Cuban state television. Francis
then left in a motorcade for the Vatican diplomatic mission in Havana,
riding in the back of a French-made Peugeot pickup truck and waving to
the crowds lining the roadway. Francis had no other scheduled public
events Saturday and will celebrate Sunday Mass at 9 a.m. in Havana’s
Plaza of the Revolution.
The outdoor Mass under the blazing Cuban sun may be a challenge for the
78-year-old pope in his stuffy vestments. It is the same place where
John Paul II spoke in 1998 and Benedict in 2012, but their visits
occurred during Cuba’s more-temperate winter months.
Francis will speak not far from the huge mural depicting the iconic gaze
of fellow Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a militant atheist who became
a worldwide revolutionary symbol for his role in helping lead the
Castros’ 1959 guerrilla victory.
Aleida Guevara, his daughter and a Havana pediatrician, said in a candid
interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency that she had no
plans to attend the Mass. “The [Cuban Communist Party] asks us militants
to go to the Mass and welcome the pope,” she said. “It’s practically an
assignment from the party, and I don’t completely agree with it.”
“I’m not going to the Mass because it would be hypocritical for me,”
Guevara continued, explaining that she views the Church as “complicit”
in the murder and disappearance of thousands of Argentines during the
1976 to 1983 military dictatorship.
“What am I going to do standing there for hours and hours? No, no,” she
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Francis will meet privately Sunday afternoon with Raúl Castro and may
also visit his retired older brother, who rarely appears in public anymore.
The pope’s calibrated statement Saturday may set the tone for the rest
of his public speeches. Opponents of the Castro government here and
abroad have urged the pope to send strongly worded messages urging
Cuba’s leaders to embrace broader economic and political reforms. Also
difficult to predict is what Francis might say about remaining
restrictions on the Catholic Church, which wants a greater role in
education and public life.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth
University, said he expects Francis to have his “frankest” discussions
with the Cuban president in private.
“I think we can expect continuity of the policy of constructive
engagement implemented by his papal predecessors,” Chesnut said.
Francis’s itinerary does not include a meeting with Cuban dissidents who
oppose the Castro government, but the pope is not known for sticking to
“I doubt he’ll meet with either prisoners or dissidents, although his
unpredictability is now legendary,” Chesnut said.
Francis’s popularity in Cuba remains sky-high among Catholics and
non-Catholics, who credit him with helping mend relations with the
This has left the Cuban government potentially more exposed to public
criticism from Francis than any of his predecessors. Raúl Castro praised
the pope once more Saturday for his calls to safeguard the planet from
climate change and address global inequality. “As His Holiness has
rightly indicated,” Castro said, “humanity should become aware of the
necessity to change lifestyles as well as production and consumption
Such sentiments hew close to the communist Castros’ view that global
capitalism preys on the Earth’s natural resources and the world’s poor.
Many here are less aware that Francis also has been a firm advocate for
democracy — with statements such as this in his 1998 book, “Dialogues
Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” about the former’s visit to the
“Cuba and other nations need to transform some of their institutions and
especially their policies, substituting corrupt, dictatorial and
authoritarian governments for democratic and participatory ones,” he
wrote in the book’s concluding remarks.
Whether he still views Cuba that way or would say something similar in
public remains to be seen.
When Francis became pope in 2013, he urged the church to go to the
peripheries and seek out the most marginalized and excluded. In the
Americas, Cuba has been the country on the periphery — at least in terms
of its relations with the United States, which has been trying to
squeeze it with trade sanctions for the past five decades.
Today, in part because of Francis, the governments are back on speaking
On Friday, President Obama and Castro talked by phone “to discuss the
process of normalization between the two countries in advance of Pope
Francis’s upcoming visits to Cuba and the United States,” according to a
White House statement. It appears to be their first conversation since
their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in March.
But it was just one of several recent gestures from both countries aimed
at creating a climate of goodwill ahead of Francis’s visit.
Earlier this past week, the Cuban government said it will pardon 3,522
prisoners, though rights activists on the island say the several dozen
inmates it considers political prisoners are excluded from the list.
Cuban officials also said Thursday that they will continue expanding
Internet access with additional public WiFi hotspots and lower prices
for logging on in a country that is among the least connected in the
In Washington, Cuban diplomat José Cabañas became his country’s first
U.S. ambassador in 54 years. And in another small but symbolic step,
U.S. and Cuban doctors met in Haiti this week to discuss potential areas
of medical cooperation.
But the most significant announcement came Friday in Washington, when
the Obama administration said it will significantly ease trade and
banking restrictions to allow U.S. companies to open offices in Cuba,
hire Cuban nationals and sell more American products on the island.
Cuba experts say the moves amount to the most sweeping changes to date
to the half-
century-old U.S. trade embargo, whose full removal would require a
Source: Pope Francis arrives in Havana, praising U.S.-Cuba thaw – The
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