Amid tears and cheers, the architect of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began his historic trip to Cuba on Saturday with a message of solidarity and reconciliation.
After his flight from Rome touched down at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Pope Francis greeted the Cuban people by noting that this year marks the 80th anniversary of uninterrupted diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See.
“Today, we renew these cooperative ties and friendship so that the church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and concerns with the freedom, means and spaces necessary to carry the proclamation of the kingdom to the existential peripheries of society,” he said in remarks on the tarmac.
On a windy day beneath overcast skies, the pope’s skullcap flew off as he descended his aircraft just after 4 p.m. to begin a 10-day trip that will span the island nation and the U.S.
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For several months, we have witnessed an event that fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two nations after years of estrangement.”
The visit comes as the former Cold War foes continue to normalize relations. The pope played a crucial role in thawing the relationship when he personally appealed to President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro last year and hosted a meeting at the Vatican as the countries worked in secret to end more than a half-century of animosity.
On Saturday, Pope Francis pointed to the efforts to establish a new relationship between the nations as “an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
“For several months, we have witnessed an event that fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two nations after years of estrangement,” he said. “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities.”
Moments after the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit took his first step onto Cuban soil, a small group of children greeted Pope Francis with flowers. Dressed in white like children attending their First Communion, the boys and girls spent several minutes talking with the pope, who hugged and patted them on the head before continuing down a red carpet alongside Castro to their seats.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald Staff
After a welcome ceremony that featured a military salute and a brass band playing the Cuban national anthem, Castro gave his welcome before Pope Francis spoke. In a 15-minute speech, Castro repeated calls for the U.S. to end its embargo of the island, which he called “cruel, immoral and illegal,” and for the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.
Castro said he shared the pope’s criticism of the global economic system, saying it has “turned money into its idol.”
The Cuban leader also echoed the pope’s concerns on climate change, and he thanked the pontiff for mediating discussions between Cuba and the U.S. Castro indicated he will be in New York next week when the pope speaks before the U.N. General Assembly.
“The reestablishment of relations has been a first step in the process toward normalization of the relationship between the two countries, which will require resolving problems and correcting injustices,” he said.
While in Cuba, the pope will visit three cities: Havana, Holguín and Santiago. In El Cobre, an old copper mining town outside Santiago, he will deliver the homily during a Mass celebrated at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba.
Francis’ arrival sent a wave of emotion through Havana. A group of young Catholics outside St. Rita’s Church watched a broadcast of the pope’s arrival on their cell phones. When they say him, they chanted Juventud del Papa! (The pope’s youth).
Emily Michot/ Miami Herald Staff
More than 100,000 lined Havana’s streets to cheer as the papal motorcade took Francis from the airport, many waving small Cuban and Vatican flags that had been distributed at workplaces. The pope waved and smiled at the euphoric crowd, who cheered him from the airport to the house occupied by the Vatican’s ambassador, the pope’s home while in Havana.
For 87-year-old Alfredo Guillerma, a self-described dissident who walked several blocks from St. Rita’s Church to catch of a glimpse of Francis in a Cuban-made popemobile, the pope’s visit brings hope to those who disagree with the Cuban government.
“He’s going to bring much happiness to Cuba for more than 3,000 common prisoners who have been released. They are human beings, too,” he said. “We are also working hard to get across the need to release political prisoners.”
He regularly marches with the Ladies in White, and he said some had been detained and had their telephones cut in the days leading up to the papal visit.
When Francis quickly passed by, he started to cry.
Emily Michot/Miami Herald Staff
Among the cheering masses were the nearly 200 pilgrims from South Florida who flew to Cuba in a trip organized by the Archdiocese of Miami.
Retired teacher Eileen Harris, of Kendall, said her time teaching in Hialeah over the years gave her the urge to see Cuba with her own eyes.
“I’m really happy to be here,” she said. “I wanted to come to Cuba for a long time, working as I did in Hialeah.”
Many Cubans have anxiously awaited the Catholic leader’s arrival. Several welcome posters bearing the pope’s image adorned storefront windows and walls, and larger billboards saying Bienvenido a Cuba Papa Francisco (Welcome to Cuba Pope Francis) were erected.
Last-minute preparations were under way for Francis in Holguín, the city he will visit Monday morning.
Above the city, at Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), state workers put the finishing touches on the perch from which Francis will bless the city Monday afternoon.
Patricia Mazzei/Miami Herald Staff
Painters were out in the city center, giving touch-ups to buildings visible from the local bishop’s office. Other areas of Holguín that might be visible to the pontiff were recently spiffed up, including the road from the airport and a baseball stadium next to the Plaza de la Revolución (Plaza of the Revolution).
“It’s Cuban tradition to clean the house when we have visitors,” said Mabel Peña, a 32-year-old psychologist who had affixed a poster welcoming Francis on her front door.
“This is such a big deal in our province,” said Peña, a practicing Catholic with a bust of Christ hanging in her living room. “It’s the first time a pope comes. We have many expectations that there will be changes, that there will be dialogue between the church and the government.”
How could the pope come to the Caribbean and we not come to see him?
Sandra Armstrong, member of the Living Water Community of Trinidad and Tobago
At the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba, chairs were already being lined up in the plaza and workers were pumping soft rock through the PA system in preparation for Francis’ visit Monday afternoon. The pope is expected to bless the city from the steps of the 16th Century cathedral on Tuesday before continuing his trip to Washington, D.C.
Sonia Acosta Gomez, a 44-year-old orthodontist, said she wasn’t particularly religious but was curious about what Latin America’s first pontiff might say.
“Everybody is always saying ‘the pope this and the pope that,’ and so I’m interested in what he might say about spiritual peace and how to be better people,” she said. “I think this visit is a good thing for us, whether we’re religious or not.”
Nerlan Bustelier, a 22-year-old physical therapist, said he admired Francis for working behind the scenes to encourage closer U.S.-Cuba ties.
“I think all Cubans feel like that’s a very big step,” he said of the rapprochement, “and there’s a lot of excitement around this visit.”
Angel Durán, a 39-year-old cab driver, said it was significant that the last three popes had gone out of their way to visit the island.
“We’ve had three popes in the last 20 years. I think the popes recognize that although we’re small, we do a lot to help the world with our medical missions,” he said of Cuban medical workers sent abroad as part of the country’s foreign aid.
Whitefield reported from Havana, Mazzei from Holguín, Wyss from Santiago and Flechas from Miami.