HAVANA — Pope Francis arrived in Havana 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 Raul 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 Jose Marti, Francis said a “system of universal growth” had prevailed over “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.”
If that line amounted to veiled criticism of the Castros’ 56-year rule over the island, it wasn’t immediately clear.
In his speech welcoming Francis, Raul Castro assured the Pope 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 has no other scheduled public events Saturday, and will rest in preparation for tomorrow morning’s 9 am Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The outdoor Mass under the blazing Cuban sun may be a challenge to 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 huge mural depicting the iconic gaze of fellow Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a militant atheist who became a worldview 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 AFP 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’m 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 said.
Francis will meet privately Sunday afternoon with Raul 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 Cuban President Raúl Castro in private.
“I think we can expect continuity of the policy of constructive engagement implemented by his papal predecessors,” said Chesnut.
Francis’s itinerary for the trip does not include a meeting with Cuban dissidents who oppose the Castro government, but the Pope is not known for sticking to script.
“I doubt he’ll meet with either prisoners or dissidents, although his unpredictability is now legendary,” said Chesnut.
Francis’s popularity in Cuba remains sky-high among Catholics and non-Catholics who credit him with helping mend U.S. relations.
This has left the Cuban government potentially more exposed to public criticism from Francis than any of his predecessors. Raul 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 patterns.”
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 has also 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 island:
“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 the country with trade sanctions for the past five decades.
Today, in part because of Francis, the two governments are back on speaking terms.
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 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 Americas.
In Washington, Cuban diplomat Jose 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, where 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 congressional vote.