Pope Benedict XVI met with Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro after the pontiff called for greater freedom for the Roman Catholic Church and warned against fanatics during a three-day visit to the communist island.
The pope said that Cuba has opened up since his predecessor John Paul II met with Fidel during a 1998 trip, allowing the church to carry out “her essential mission” of expressing faith. Authorities should continue the process, he said.
Celebrating Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square to a crowd estimated by the Vatican at 300,000, Benedict said that both Cuba and the world need change “but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth.” While urging Cubans to seek out “authentic freedom” he also criticized “restrictive economic measures imposed from outside” in reference to a half-century U.S. embargo against Latin America’s sole dictatorship.
After the Mass, the pope met with Fidel Castro and his wife. Castro asked most of the questions as the two spoke of economic and environmental problems during their 30-minute, discussion, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
Expectations of the pope meeting Fidel had dominated his three-day visit to Cuba, which came on the heels of a visit to Mexico, the largest Catholic nation in the Spanish-speaking world.
“It was a cordial reception although less expansive or enthusiastic than the one he received in Mexico,” Lombardi told reporters. “This doesn’t mean there was less sincerity and perhaps underlines the fact that this is an event that’s even more rare for the Cuban people than it is for Mexicans.”
The pope in his homily yesterday cited a Biblical passage in which men persecuted by a king preferred to face death rather than betray their conscience. “There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism,” he told the crowd, including the communist party leadership.
His criticism of the U.S. embargo followed John Paul II’s condemnation the same American policies and famous call that Cuba should “open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Benedict expressed support for political prisoners, and the Vatican said that he raise humanitarian issues in a meeting with President Raul Castro. The U.S. State Department renewed yesterday its request that the pontiff seek the release of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross, though it’s unknown if the case was discussed.
Still, the pope refused requests for an audience from dissidents who Amnesty International said were harassed and arrested during the visit.
The mass in Revolution Square “was beautiful but the pope didn’t see the real Cuba,” said Julio Cesar, 74, sitting on a park bench in central Havana as the pope made his way to the airport. “He should see how the poor live in Cuba. There’s no work here.”
While Cesar said he appreciated the pope’s call for change, he said he doubted it would materialize after a half-century of single party rule.
Benedict’s visit re-enforced the important role being played in Cuba by the church, which behind the scenes has pushed along reforms to open up the economy like the decision last year to allow Cubans to buy and sell property for the first time since the 1959 revolution.
Securing political freedom has been more difficult, however. Marino Murillo, vice president of the Council of Ministers, ruled out any political change during a press conference with reporters this week.
During a Mass in Santiago de Cuba on March 26, security guards pulled away a man who tried to approach the pope shouting “down with communism.” Images broadcast on foreign TV networks covering the visit showed him being hit in the face several times by the crowd, once with a gurney by a man wearing a Red Cross vest.
“Cuban human rights activists are facing a surge in harassment in a bid to silence them during the pope’s visit,” Amnesty said in an e-mailed statement, adding that 150 dissidents had been arrested by Cuban authorities during the papal visit.
Cubans have started returning to the pews after Fidel Castro declared Christmas a holiday following the visit of John Paul II to the once officially atheist nation.
Benedict asked Raul Castro to also make Good Friday a holiday, Lombardi said. An official reply is expected to take some time, he said.
Only half of Cuba’s 11.2 million people identify themselves as Catholics compared with 85 percent in Mexico, according to a 2011 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
While the door is shut to political change, Murillo, the architect of recent economic policies, said that Cuba has studied the experiences of China, Vietnam and Russia to open their economies with an eye to further changes.
“We’ve done it with the aim of learning and understanding the economic concepts those countries have applied, which doesn’t automatically mean we’re going to copy what others did,” Murillo said.
Cuba’s gross domestic product expanded 2.5 percent last year, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with 4.3 percent growth for the region.