News24

Pope meets Cuba president

2012-03-28 08:12

Havana - Pope Benedict XVI met President Raul Castro on Tuesday after calling for a more "open society" in Cuba - a call that led a top official to say the Communist-ruled island had no political reform plans.

The 84-year-old pontiff, who arrived in Havana from the eastern city of Santiago after celebrating an open-air mass on Monday, was expected to discuss the future of church-state relations with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution.

The pair met for less than an hour, emerging to pose for photographers.

They exchanged gifts, with Castro offering the pope a statue of Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, and the pontiff giving the Cuban leader a copy of Ptolemy's Geography.

The pope - leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics - is seeking to bolster the Church's relationship with Cuban authorities, and to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.

Political reforms

But his calls to "build a renewed and open society" prompted Cuban vice president Marino Murillo to rule out any sweeping political reforms in the Americas' only one-party Communist state.

"In Cuba, there will be no political reforms," Murillo, who is in charge of carrying out the economic reform programme ordered over the past few years by Castro, told reporters.

"In Cuba, what we are talking about is an updating of our Cuban economic model, which makes our own form of socialism more sustainable, for the well-being of our people," he said.

At the start of his visit on Monday - the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years - Benedict urged the faithful at a mass in Santiago to help construct a "renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity".

Last week, he said Marxism "no longer corresponds to reality".

But Cuba's leaders insist democracy already exists on the island, and sees the papal visit as a way to show to the world that it is tolerant and open to religious expression.

The pontiff is due to celebrate a mass on Wednesday in Havana's Revolution Square, with as many as one million people in attendance, before departing later in the day. He arrived in Cuba from Mexico.

Political prisoners

Before flying to Havana, Benedict visited a shrine outside Santiago, Cuba's second largest city, to honour the country's patron saint.

Benedict's visit coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a small wooden statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre floating in the water off the shores of eastern Cuba.

The pope offered a prayer to the beloved statue of the virgin, asking that she help the country, which was "advancing along the ways of renewal and hope".

In what appeared to be a reference to political prisoners and perhaps Cuban exiles, Benedict offered a prayer for "the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones".

Authorities reportedly rounded up at least 150 dissidents in the days leading up to the pope's visit to thwart any possible demonstrations. Others have been barred from leaving their homes.

The pontiff has no plans to meet with members of the Cuban opposition, a decision which has drawn some criticism.

Among those seeking an audience with the pope are leaders of the Ladies in White, one of the island's best-known activist groups.

Expectations

There had been talk that the pope could meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Cuba for a new round of cancer treatment, but Chavez said on Tuesday that he would not "interfere" with the papal agenda.

Catholics account for just 10% of Cuba's population of about 11 million. The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating the release of prisoners.

Cuba was officially atheist until the early 1990s.

After a visit by John Paul II in 1998, expectations were high that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark change after decades of centralised government.

But more than a decade later, the country remains isolated and its state-run economy is feeble. Cuban workers struggle to survive on a salary of $20 a month.

Pilgrims who travelled to Cuba from around the region to see the pope included some from Florida in the US, home to the world's largest concentration of Cuban exiles.

A flotilla carrying activist exiles from Florida arrived near Cuba shortly after the pope and Castro met, organisers said. Activists launched fireworks in international waters off the island's shores.

"We're off the island and we are launching our first lights for democracy," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, one of the organisers.