(Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Friday that communism had failed in Cuba and offered the Church's help in creating a new economic model, drawing a reserved response from the Cuban government ahead of his visit to the island next week.
Speaking on the plane taking him from Rome on a six-day trip to Mexico and Cuba, the Roman Catholic leader told reporters: Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality.
Responding to a question about his visit to Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of the United States and a Communist bastion for more than 50 years, Benedict added: In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way.
The 84-year-old pontiff's comments reflected the Church's history of anti-communism and were more pointed and critical than anything his predecessor John Paul II said on his groundbreaking visit to Cuba 14 years ago.
They were also surprising because, after decades of poor relations following Cuba's 1959 revolution, the Church and government have moved closer in recent years, so it was widely thought the pope would avoid problems by treading lightly on controversial topics.
If Cuban leaders were riled by his comments, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez gave no hint of this news conference at the opening in Havana of the press centre for the visit.
We will listen with all respect to his Holiness, he said when asked about the pope's words.
We respect all opinions. We consider useful the exchange of ideas, he added, noting however that our people have deep convictions developed over our country's long history.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, praised the pope for showing the good will of the Catholic Church and especially Pope Benedict XVI about the situation in Cuba, but he doubted much would change.
LACKING WILL FOR CHANGE
The government lacks the will to make the political changes Cuba needs, Sanchez said.
John Paul is best remembered for his conciliatory words at a Mass in Havana's vast Revolution Square: May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.
Pope Benedict said John Paul had opened up a path of collaboration and constructive dialogue, a road that is long and calls for patience but moves forward.
While they have resolved some differences, the Cuban bishops and government are still at odds over issues such as Church use of the media and religious education.
The Church will be hoping to use the papal visit to boost its congregation in Cuba which plummeted after the revolution, partly due to the exodus of many families and also due to a climate of government hostility.
Church officials say about 60 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million people have been baptized in the faith, but only about five percent of those regularly go to mass.
Benedict, who arrives in Cuba on Monday for a three-day visit including large Masses in the cities of Havana and Santiago, offered the help of the Church in achieving a peaceful transition on the island saying the process required patience but also much decisiveness.
We want to help in a spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world, the pope added.
The word trauma has been used previously by Church members to refer to a possibly difficult transition when Cuba's aging leaders are gone, including revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, 85 and his brother and successor, President Raul Castro, 80.
Cuba's leaders have repeatedly recognized that the country's economic model needs improvement, though they staunchly defend the island's one-party communist-run political system.
In 2010, Fidel Castro told a reporter for the Atlantic magazine that the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore, which some commentators interpreted as a recognition that communism had failed in Cuba.
Castro later said the remark was not meant as a criticism of Cuba's communist revolution, but was instead directed at the island's difficult economic conditions.
The comment appeared to reflect Castro's agreement with his brother's modest reforms to stimulate Cuba's troubled economy in order to preserve the revolution.
It is still unknown is whether Benedict will meet Fidel, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before age and infirmity forced him to step down. The Vatican has said the pope will be available if the elder, ailing Castro wants to meets him.
In a report published on Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International said harassment and detention of dissidents in Cuba had risen sharply the last two years.
Asked on the plane whether he should defend human rights in Cuba, the pope replied: It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom, on the side of freedom of conscience, of freedom of religion, and we contribute in this sense.
On Monday, Cuba released 70 members of the dissident Ladies in White group detained during the weekend but warned them not to attend activities related to the pope visit.
The women, known in Spanish as the Damas de Blanco, were freed without charges after being arrested in three separate incidents on Saturday and Sunday when they attempted to march in Havana. They could not be reached by phone on Friday.
Rodriguez warned that those who try to hinder this papal visit with political manipulations will fail because his Holiness will find in Cuba a patriotic and educated people, proud of its culture, of its convictions. There are no meetings with Cuban dissidents on the pope's program.
Last week the Vatican re-stated its condemnation of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, calling it useless and something that hurts ordinary people.
The embargo, which marked its 50th anniversary last month, is still the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean island although it has failed to meet its objective of undermining the communist government.
Washington imposed the near-total trade embargo at the height of the Cold War to punish Havana for its support of the Soviet Union and in the hope it would bring an end to communism.