Wednesday, March 28, 2012
RAUL CASTRO GREETS POPE BENEDICT AT START OF CLOSELY WATCHED VISIT - THE NEW YORK TIMES
But although Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, greeted Benedict at the airport here, where he said Cuba’s Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, that broadening may take some time
Many worshipers at a festive Mass here on Monday had been pressured to attend by their employer or a local chapter of the Communist Party, and dissidents had been pressured not to attend, according to a Cuban priest who is among the clerics most critical of the government. A man who started shouting criticism of the government was quickly removed by security.
Benedict’s visit comes 14 years after the historic first papal trip to Cuba by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, a visit that yielded an era of greater religious expression. In his speech at the airport, Benedict called John Paul’s visit “a gentle breath of fresh air which gave new strength to the church in Cuba.”
It is a delicate time for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, where it has staked out a mediating role between the Cuban people and the Castro government. In a key moment in 2010, the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, helped negotiate the release of dozens of political prisoners. But others have criticized the church for being too close to the government.
At the airport, the pope 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.” He added, “It is touching to see how God not only respects human freedom: he almost seems to require it.”
Human rights groups have been pushing for the pope to meet with Cuban dissidents. The Vatican has said no such meetings are scheduled. But at the airport, Benedict said that he carried in his heart “the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans,” singling out “prisoners and their families.”
In greeting Benedict, Mr. Castro saved his most pointed remarks for the United States. “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 Vatican has long opposed the trade embargo, saying it harms the people more than the government.
Asked about Cuba on his plane on the way to Mexico, where he spent three days before traveling here, Benedict said, “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology, in the way it was conceived, no longer corresponds to reality.”
Cuban officials brushed off the pope’s words — while Cubans on the streets knew nothing about them because they were not reported in the Cuban news media.
As an estimated 200,000 people gathered for Mass in Santiago de Cuba, including several groups of pilgrims from Miami, bands playing music and stands selling pizza and soft drinks evoked the atmosphere of a pop concert — one whose audience has been well orchestrated by the authorities. Placards indicated that groups had been shepherded by their place of work, their school or their local chapter of the Communist Party, much in the same way the government mobilizes crowds for the huge May Day parade each year.
Before the Mass, the Rev. José Conrado of Santiago de Cuba, a critic of the government, said the opposition had reported government pressure on people to attend the Mass, and on opposition members to stay 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,” Father Conrado said.
Although more than half of Cubans identify as Catholic, very few regularly attend Mass, while evangelical and Pentecostal churches have grown rapidly on the island, and Santeria, a belief system mixing African, Caribbean and other religious elements, remains very popular.
While those who attended Monday’s Mass waved the traditional yellow-and-white flags of the Holy See, a voice came over a loudspeaker explaining what a priest does, who a priest is and what communion is. Cardinal Ortega explained similar things in a rare address on television last week, apparently in an effort to educate Cubans before the visit.
Ángel García, a 25-year-old who had traveled 11 hours from Camagüey Province with a Catholic group, said attending the Mass was the most exciting moment he could remember. “It fills me with emotion,” he said. “It’s very exciting because maybe he can bring some kind of change. And we really need it.”
On Tuesday, the pope is expected to visit the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden icon revered by Cubans of all faiths as a source of good fortune, a gesture widely seen as intended to shore up popular devotion on the island. And the highlight of the trip is expected to be a large Mass for tens of thousands of people on Wednesday in Revolution Square in Havana.
Religious leaders hope Benedict will press the case for more liberty for the Cuban people, including allowing churches to run their own schools and broadcast services on radio and television. American officials anticipate that he will raise the case of a jailed American government contractor when he meets President Castro on Tuesday.
He is also expected to greet the president’s brother and longtime Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a close friend of Fidel Castro, arrived in Cuba suddenly on Saturday night for medical treatment, but the Vatican spokesman has said that no meeting with the pope has been planned. Mr. Chávez has undergone cancer surgeries on the island in the last several months.
A meeting with Mr. Chávez would “distract from the pope’s main reason for going to Cuba, which is to strengthen the role and influence of the Catholic Church on the island,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. “It would be very strange and awkward for the pope to meet with Chávez but not any Cuban dissidents,” he added.
Some at the Mass said they were not convinced the pope’s visit would lead to more freedom. “I came to experience two hours of liberty, as did many people here,” said a former railway worker who gave his name only as José Antonio. “Look around you, everyone is breathing.”
“But he will leave,” he added about the pope, “and darkness will fall again.”