Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by children upon his arrival to the airport in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday March 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
SANTIAGO, Cuba -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, saying he holds great affection for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits and heartfelt hopes for reconciliation.
President Raul Castro warmly greeted the pope, who said he was coming as "a pilgrim of charity" as he arrived at the sweltering airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.
The pontiff, who last week said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a more gentle tweak to his hosts by expressing sympathy for all islanders, including prisoners.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious freedom and has good relations with all religious institutions.
"The Cuban Constitution consecrates and guarantees total religious freedom for all citizens," he said.
He also criticized the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said.
The two men greeted each other with clasped hands and wide smiles after the pope arrived on a special Alitalia flight that flew Cuban and Vatican flags from the cockpit as it taxied along the airport tarmac.
Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana's airport and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
In his remarks 14 years ago, John Paul singled out Cuban political prisoners jailed for their ideas, something Benedict did not do in Monday's speech.
Cuba has released dozens of political prisoners in recent years -- often through agreements with the church -- and denies it holds any now. Officials refer to dissidents as stooges in the sway of its U.S. enemies. Human rights groups say some Cubans remain jailed for their political activities, and note that harassment and brief detentions of dissidents is on the rise.
Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the 84-year-old pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba's tightly controlled arrival ceremony, which took place on the tarmac in steamy, 88-degree Fahrenheit (31-degree Celsius) weather.
The pontiff was scheduled to travel through town in his glassed-in popemobile and then rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.
Benedict will only be in Cuba for a little over 48 hours, and his limited schedule is sure to disappoint many who want a piece of his attention, from the dissident community, to practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith, to returning Cuban American exiles and even representatives of imprisoned U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross who are hoping the pontiff will intercede on his behalf.
The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with any of them, citing his advanced age and need for rest. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as "El Comandante." A new wildcard entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked about reports the pope might meet with Chavez while in Cuba and said that as of Sunday morning, there were no such plans.
Despite the challenge of meeting the expectations of so many, Benedict has demonstrated an ability to surprise during his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America.
In Mexico, which remains devoted to John Paul, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff whose appeal can never compete with that of his predecessor.
"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon, Mexico, who was among an estimated 350,000 people attending Benedict's Sunday Mass. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."
The welcome was inevitably less fervent in Cuba, where only about 10 percent of the people are practicing Catholics. Still, the government is helping bring out crowds by offering special transportation and giving residents a paid day off to attend the Mass in Santiago, and another on Wednesday in the capital.
The political overtones of the Cuba leg are more pronounced than they were in Mexico.
Benedict has been sharply critical of socialism in the past, and when he began his journey to the Americas last week, he told reporters it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality." He exhorted Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."
In his speech Monday, Benedict balanced that by criticizing capitalism for leaving "humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families."
Cuban leaders have so far responded diplomatically to Benedict's comments. The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations.
But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
The Catholic Church has long sought greater access to the airwaves, including its own radio station. It also wants permission to open religious schools and build new churches and seminaries. In his speech, Benedict noted "a new spirit of cooperation and trust" between the government and Catholic leaders but added that "greater progress can and ought to be made."
Despite its limitations, the church is now the most influential independent institution in Cuba, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.The pope left Mexico Monday as a mariachi band serenaded his plane and a crowd of hundreds waved flags and Vatican-yellow balloons.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Paul Haven contributed to this report from Havana.
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