REPORTING FROM SANTIAGO, CUBA, AND LEON, MEXICO -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday, days after criticizing the island’s Marxism as an obsolete model in need of change, and immediately called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.”
Benedict was greeted by President Raul Castro, senior Roman Catholic clerics and crowds of Cubans from the island and abroad in sunny, seafront Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city. People tapped drums and chanted Benedict’s name.
It marks the first papal visit to the Communist Party-ruled island since John Paul II’s landmark visit 14 years ago.
Benedict arrives at a time of major transition on the island, with the government slowly embarking on economic reforms unthinkable just a few years ago. But political change continues to lag. Dissidents, regarded by the government as subversives, say they’ve been ordered to steer clear of events related to the pope's visit.
Many of those awaiting the pope said they hoped his visit would foster more change.
Castro used his welcoming remarks at the airport to promise religious freedom in Cuba and to excoriate the "economic, political and media blockade" imposed by the United States against the communist government that in some way worsens "but will never separate us from our truth."
Santiago, 560 miles east of Havana, is both the “cradle” of the Cuban revolution -- it was the site of the first uprising that would eventually take Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, to power -- and is also considered strongly Catholic.
The timing of the pope’s visit coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a wooden image of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, in the sea off Santiago. A basilica in her honor was erected in nearby Cobre, and Catholics from much of Latin America make pilgrimages there to seek out her purportedly miraculous powers. The pope will pray at the sanctuary Tuesday and stay near Cobre, in a flower-festooned house built for him.
The Cuban government spruced up the area ahead of Benedict’s arrival, repairing facades damaged by time and sea air. Security was tight, with police deployed throughout Santiago; some approached and seemed to eavesdrop when reporters interviewed pilgrims.
“They fixed the highway, the roads, they painted our houses and they gave the vendors new kiosks,” said Santiago resident Armando Sotres. “We are thankful to the pope for all of this.”
Benedict arrived in Cuba after nearly three days in Mexico’s central Guanajuato state, where he preached against the horrid violence of drug trafficking and crime that plagues the heavily Catholic nation.
At a departure ceremony earlier Monday in Silao, the pope urged Mexicans “not to let yourselves be intimidated by the powers of evil.”
“I strongly urge Mexican Catholics, and all men and women of goodwill, not to yield to a utilitarian mentality which always leads to the sacrifice of the weakest and most defenseless,” he said. “I invite you to a common effort so that society can be renewed from the ground up, in order to attain a life of dignity, justice and peace for everyone.”
When he left Rome for Latin America last week, Benedict told reporters aboard his flight that Cuba’s Marxist model “no longer corresponds to reality” and that the island must find new models to grow and advance. Many have been wondering if those comments will embitter his meeting with Raul Castro and possible encounter with Fidel, who turned over power to his younger brother in 2008.
Asked about the comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said his government “considers useful the exchange of ideas ... and will listen with all respect to his holiness.”
But, he added, “The Cuban people have deep convictions, developed throughout the length of our history.”
The main event here in Santiago will be a Mass later Monday in the Antonio Maceo plaza, named for a commander in Cuba’s 19th century fight for independence from Spain. A huge portrait of Fidel Castro that hangs above the plaza was joined by one of the pope.
Local organizers built an altar for the service, constructed in the shape of a papal miter hat and festooned in colors of white and blue to represent the sea, said Carlos Santos, in charge of logistics for the event. The venue can hold about 300,000 people “and we are sure we will fill it to capacity,” he added.
Pilgrims from all over Cuba began arriving Sunday, and groups from the United States also started to show up by Monday.
“We traveled six hours in a bus,” said Sergio Romero, 57, who came from Camaguey with his wife, children and other relatives. “There is a lot of security along the way. Fortunately they have repaired the highway and so conditions are very good and we got here easily.”
The family planned to camp out near the plaza to await the pope.
“We hope we can see him close up,” said Romero’s wife, Juana Celorio. “My children are really excited.”
Ernestina Martinez, a 46-year-old teacher, said she wanted the pope’s presence to give hope to believers, who are a minority in Cuba. “His visit is a consolation for those of us who believe,” she said. “He gives us faith and unity, and in Cuba we need faith to believe that a better future awaits us.”
Rolando Pereda, a Cuban American restaurant owner who traveled to Santiago from Miami, said he prayed that Benedict would give a message of change that reaches the Castro brothers.
“I am here because I am Catholic and Cuban,” he said. “I have faith things can finally change in this country, the change we Cubans so desire, and that the regime will finally end.”
A 20-year-old student named Juan, who did not want to give his last name, said the pope was welcome and would be respected. “But sincerely, I do not think that his visit will change the situation here,” he said. “Here we say we respect what outsiders say, but on the island, we do what Fidel says and wants.”
Benedict continues to Havana on Tuesday.
-- Cecilia Sanchez in Santiago, Cuba, and Tracy Wilkinson in Leon, Mexico
Photo: Pope Benedict XVI walks with Cuban President Raul Castro, right, as the pontiff arrives at the airport in Santiago, Cuba. Credit: Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press