Pope Benedict left Mexico for Cuba on Monday for a three-day visit that he hopes will help advance economic and political change on the communist-run island and encourage a faith revival among followers of the Roman Catholic church. Visiting 14 years after Pope John Paul II's landmark trip to Cuba, Benedict will pay homage to the island's patron saint, a diminutive doll-like figurine known as the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, and say Masses in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and in Havana. Benedict arrives at a time when Church-state relations have warmed after decades of hostility that followed the island's 1959 revolution. President Raul Castro will meet Benedict, 84 and frail, on Monday afternoon at the airport in eastern Santiago de Cuba which is Cuba's second-biggest city, then hold official talks with him on Tuesday in Havana.

It was not yet known if Benedict would meet ailing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is 85 and Raul's older brother, or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, 57, who arrived in the Cuban capital over the weekend for cancer treatment. The fiercely leftist Venezuelan leader has become more publicly religious since undergoing surgery for a still undisclosed type of cancer in Cuba last summer. President Castro has used the Church as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward on reforms to Cuba's rickety Soviet-style economy. They include slashing a million government jobs and freeing up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise. Though weakened after more than half a century of communist rule, the Church remains the largest and most socially influential institution outside of the government in Cuba. Since the visit by John Paul, the Church has sought to increase its social outreach, offering care centres for the elderly as well as limited after-school and adult education programs, though it is denied permission to compete with Cuba's state-run school system. Benedict will try to build on those gains and push for a bigger role for the Church, which has supported Castro's reforms and urged him to move farther and faster in modernizing Cuba, both economically and politically.


The German pope got things off to an unexpected start on Friday when he fired a salvo at communism, telling reporters it had failed and a new economic model was needed. He added that the Church was willing to offer its help to avoid traumas. The Cuban government offered a diplomatic response to the Pope's criticism, saying that Cuba would listen with all respect to the Pope and welcomed the exchange of ideas.

Church officials say Benedict's schedule does not allow for meetings with dissidents, who say Castro's government flouts human rights and suppresses their voices. The dissident movement Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of Catholic women that campaigns for the release of political prisoners, said it had been told by Cuban authorities to keep clear of the pope's Mass in Santiago. They are going to present the pope with a facade, not with the true Cuba, said Ana Celia Rodriguez, a 42-year-old mother of three who is planning to try to attend anyway. I really don't expect much change from the pope's visit. He'll see a Cuba that doesn't exist. My message for the pope is that he ought to see how things really are. More than 70 members of the Ladies in White group were detained briefly last week, fuelling expectations that the government, which views opponents as mercenaries of the United States, might clamp down to prevent public demonstrations during the pope's stay. Cuba does not offer me a future, said 14-year-old school girl Martha Beatriz Ferrer, whose mother is one of the Ladies in White. I would like to be a lawyer, but I won't be able to become one. The fact my parents are opponents of the regime discredits me with the authorities, she added.

While many Cubans complain about the failings of the socialist economy, not everyone agrees with the Pope's assessment that a new economic model is needed. Many Cubans would like the pope's visit to help bring an end to the 50-year-old trade embargo the United States has imposed on the island. All Cubans would like the pope's visit to have repercussions that help end the embargo, but we don't need a new system, said Sergio Teyes, 40. The economy has been improving, growing. Education and healthcare is paid for, he added. Marxism will always be the idea, but with improvements. One thing we could do with are better salaries. The pontiff will lead a Mass in honour of the Virgin in Santiago de Cuba on Monday, and then visit the sanctuary where it is enshrined in the mountainside town of El Cobre, 12 miles (20 km) outside the city, on Tuesday morning. The Communist Party ended its ban on religious believers in 1991, but Cubans generally view John Paul's visit as the pivotal moment that led to improved Church-state relations. Expectations are more muted for Benedict's visit, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Virgin figurine. The trip was inspired by a stirring of faith the Church saw in hundreds of thousands of people who thronged to a procession of a replica around the island last year. Found floating in a bay in 1612 by fishermen, the icon was revered by Cuba's independence heroes and sits in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel Castro and Che Guevara staged the 1959 revolution. The Virgin is an important figure for both the Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba's slavery era and knows her as Ochun, the goddess of love.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks and Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)