In the first papal visit to Communist Cuba in fourteen years, Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd of 200,000 people during Mass in the city of Santiago that Cuba should “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity.”
The Pope, who was welcomed by President Raul Castro, marked the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre -- also known as the ‘Mambisa Virgin’ -- the patron saint of Cuba.
Devotion to the Virgin Mambisa has sustained the faith and inspired the defense and promotion of all that gives dignity to the human condition and fundamental rights, the Pontiff said upon arrival.
“I, too, wish to go to El Cobre to kneel at the feet of the Mother of God; I want to ask her to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.”
The Pope also made vague references to Cuba’s repressive government and expressed his wish for more freedom for its people.
I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires, 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,” he stated.
The German pontiff also said that he believed Cuba is at this moment [in a] particular importance in its history, is looking to the future and striving to renew and broaden its horizons.
Sarah Rainsford, a BBC correspondent travelling in Havana, noted that up to 10 percent of the Cuban population are now practicing Catholics and that the rising influence of the church may help to speed up reforms in the country after 50 years of Marxism.
The Pope, who criticized Communism as an outdated economic and social model prior to his arrival in Cuba, appeared to have toned down that rhetoric once he stepped foot on the island.
Indeed, the Pope has also criticized the United States for imposing a five-decade embargo on Cuba.
For his part, Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) attended the Santiago mass and asserted that Cuba grants full religious freedoms and that he has good relations with the Catholic Church.
Indeed, the church has been involved in negotiations with the government over such issues as the release of political prisoners.
However, according to reports, opposition groups claim that some dissidents were rounded up and detained prior to the Pope’s arrival and were barred from attending the mass in Santiago.
The Miami Herald newspaper reported that Cuban exiles in the United States and elsewhere want the Catholic Church in Cuba to work harder to bring and end to the Communist dictatorship that has ruled Cuba for over half a century.