Raul Castro spoke of the role of Francis in the thaw with the USA
By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — Pope Francis began his historic visit to Cuba on Saturday afternoon talking about “reconciliation” and “hope” for the island after the thaw with the United States.
Several of Francis’s first words after stepping on Cuban soil were devoted to rapprochement between the two countries in which Francis himself is seen as a mediator. The pontiff also called for more space for the Catholic church on the island.
In his greeting Francis also called attention to “all Cubans scattered around the world.” Just before, he had sent his greetings to former Cuban President Fidel Castro, withdrawn from power since 2006.
“For several months, we are witnessing an event that fills us with hope: the process of normalization of relations between two countries after years of estrangement,” said Francis at the Havana Airport.
“It’s a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter, dialogue,” he said. Cuba and the United States officially resumed diplomatic relations on July 20.
Raul Castro went to the terminal to welcome the Pope, accompanied by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Several children were the first to greet the Pope.
To begin his address, the Argentine pope expressed his “feelings of special consideration and respect” for Fidel Castro. The greeting immediately extended to the “Cubans scattered throughout the world” and all those who “for various reasons, I will not encounter.”
The phrase was interpreted as an allusion to the outlawed Cuban political opposition, which apparently the Pope will not see on the island. Several dissidents had asked before the trip that Francisco receive them.
In his welcoming address, Raul Castro stressed again the role of the pope in the thaw with Washington. “We appreciated your support for dialogue between the United States and Cuba,” said the Cuban leader, who spoke first.
In his remarks, Castro also criticized capitalism and once again condemned the “cruel” US embargo imposed on the island since the 60’s.
Because of his critical discourse with capitalist excesses, his defense of the poor and his living an austere life, Francis is seen in several countries of the region as a “leftwing pope.”
Jorge Bergoglio is the third Catholic pontiff to visit Cuba.
During his speech, Francis called for more freedom for the Church on the island after the space won after the visits of John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012.
“Today we renew these ties of cooperation and friendship for the Church to continue to accompany and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and their concerns freely and by all means and spaces needed,” he said. Later Francis noted that he will pray to the Virgin for the country to transit through “paths of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.”
The pastoral visit of the Pope to Cuba and then to the United States, totally nine days, generates great political expectations.
Jorge Bergoglio will officiate a morning mass Sunday in the historic Plaza de la Revolution in Havana, as did his predecessors. The event is expected to attract tens of thousands of people.
In addition to Raul Castro’s presence at the mass, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez is in Havana as a special guest for the occasion. On Sunday afternoon Francisco will have an official meeting with the Cuban president.
Although not on the official agenda, Vatican sources consider it likely that the pontiff will also meet with former President Fidel Castro. The historic Cuban leader retired from public life in 2006, but often sees foreign personalities passing through Cuba. In 2012 he went to a meeting with Benedict XVI.
The pope will travel on Monday to the northeastern Cuban city of Holguin, where he will celebrate another open-air mass. Francisco will conclude his visit to the island on Tuesday in Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city of the country. From there he will fly directly to the United States.