Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba on Monday for a three-day visit to showcase improving Church-state relations and push for a larger Church role at a time of change on the communist island.

The pope was warmly greeted in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba at the steps of his plane by Cuban President Raul Castro, dressed in a dark suit, accompanied by a full Honor Guard and artillery gun salute.

Visiting 14 years after Pope John Paul II's landmark trip to Cuba, Benedict will lead Masses in Santiago and in Havana before flying home on Wednesday.

He comes to Cuba at a time when Church-state relations have warmed after decades of hostility that followed the island's 1959 revolution.

In a brief arrival speech before heading off in the popemobile for a Mass in Santiago's Revolution Square, Benedict recalled the previous papal visit, saying it left an indelible mark on the soul of all Cubans, whether believers or not.

John Paul's visit was like a gentle breath of fresh air which gave new strength to the Church in Cuba, the 84-year-old pope said.

The 1998 visit had marked a new phase in Church-state relations, in a spirit of cooperation and trust, even in many areas in which greater progress can and ought to be made, especially as regards the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.

In his welcoming remarks, Castro delivered a firm political lecture about the injustices of the United States' hostility toward Cuba, and the island's tenacious resistance to preserve its independence and follow its own path.

The two men are due to meet for talks in the capital Havana on Tuesday, after the pope visits the figurine of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron, at a basilica in El Cobre near Santiago.

After years of Church-state hostility following Cuba's 1959 revolution, Castro has used the Church as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward with reforms to Cuba's struggling Soviet-style economy.

They include slashing a million government jobs and freeing up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise.

Benedict, who visited Mexico over the weekend, will try to cement those gains in Cuba and offer more help from the Church in assuring that whatever transition comes is buffered by its social programs, such as care centres for the elderly and limited after-school and adult education programs.

It has supported Castro's reforms and urged him to move farther and faster in modernizing Cuba, both economically and politically.

Benedict fired an unexpected salvo on Friday when he said communism in Cuba had failed and a new economic model was needed, adding 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.

In his arrival remarks on Monday the pope was less direct in his criticism of Cuba's one-party political system, although he did offer some thinly veiled phrases addressing Cuba's hotly debated human rights records.

I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, he said, including the sufferings of prisoners and their families, a reference likely to be well received by political dissidents on the island as well as Cuban American exiles in the United States.

In a clear effort to balance his remarks, Benedict made an apparent dig at capitalist greed, blaming the global economic crisis on the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.

Cuba was going through a key moment in its history, Benedict said, hinting that with the advancing age of the Castro brothers the island was already looking to the future.

Echoing the words of Pope John Paul who in 1998 urged Cuba to open itself up to the world, and the world to open itself up to Cuba, Benedict also recognized that Cuba was making an effort to renew and broaden its horizons.

DISSIDENTS

Church officials say Benedict's schedule has not allowed 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 were detained briefly last week, fuelling concerns that the government, which views opponents as mercenaries of the United States, might clamp down to prevent public demonstrations during the pope's stay.

While many Cubans complain about the failings of the socialist economy, not everyone agrees with the Pope's bleak assessment of Cuban communism.

We're so happy the Pope is coming, it makes us feel as though the world is noticing us, said Alejandro Linares, a 23-year-old university student from the eastern province of Guantanamo, a small image of revolutionary icon Ernesto 'Che' Guevara dangling around his neck.

We want him to see our Cuba. We want him to see that we live pretty well here and that we want to be socialist, not capitalist.

Earlier on Monday two airplanes arrived in Santiago from Miami carrying 310 mostly Cuban American faithful on a special Church-organized package to attend the papal Masses. The Miami pilgrims brought a message of reconciliation, said the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski. It's important that we overcome the resentments and hatred of the past, he said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks and Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Adams and Kieran Murray)