Pope Benedict arrives in Cuba on Monday on a three-day visit that has fueled aspirations for deeper economic and political change on the communist-run island and which the Roman Catholic Church hopes will spark a faith revival.
Visiting 14 years after Pope John Paul II’s landmark trip to Cuba, and arriving after a stop in Mexico, Benedict will pay homage to the island’s patron saint, the diminutive doll-like figurine the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, and say Masses in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and in Havana.
He comes to Cuba at a time when church-state relations have warmed after decades of hostility that followed the island’s 1959 revolution.
President Raul Castro has used the Church as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, seeking support for his reforms to Cuba’s rickety Soviet-style economy that partly involve slashing a million government jobs.
The Church is the largest and most socially influential institution outside of the government in Cuba.
Castro will meet Benedict at the airport in 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, 84, 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.
In Mexico, Benedict denounced drug violence and corruption, while in Cuba he was expected to build on improved relations with the state to get a bigger role for the Church by expanding its social programs and education courses.
But he fired an unexpected salvo on Friday when he told reporters that communism on the Caribbean island had failed and a new economic model was needed.
While even non-Catholic Cubans are eagerly awaiting his visit, not everyone agreed with his views on communism.
“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, sitting next to the frayed 1950 Chevrolet Deluxe classic car he uses to drive tourists around town, its bumpers and trim dented and blue paint flaking off.
“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 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.
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