Pope lands in communist Cuba for 3-day visit

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict landed in eastern Cuba today 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.

President Raul Castro was on hand at Santiago de Cuba’s seaside airport to greet the pope, who flew in from Mexico where he had denounced drug violence. Castro and Benedict were to make remarks before the German pontiff headed into Santiago for a cruise in his popemobile. He was to give a public Mass in the city’s Revolution Square later in the afternoon.

The two men were 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. Benedict will give a public Mass in the Cuban capital on Wednesday morning before his departure.

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, 84, will try to cement those gains and offer more help from the Church in assuring that whatever transition comes is buffered by its social aid. It has supported Castro’s reforms and urged him to move farther and faster in modernizing Cuba, both economically and politically.

The 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.”

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. Cuban dissidents have requested a meeting with the pope, but the Vatican has said he has none scheduled. It was not yet known if Benedict would meet 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. Chavez has become more publicly religious since he was operated on for cancer last summer in Cuba. Unconfirmed reports out of Venezuela said the pope would see him in Havana.

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