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Pope Benedict receives enthusiastic welcome in Cuba

SANTIAGO, Cuba — Tens of thousands of Cuban well wishers greeted Pope Benedict XVI Monday on the first leg of his whirlwind tour of this communist island, a visit aimed at building on the spiritual gains that his predecessor, John Paul II, made during a historic visit 14 years ago.

Thousands lined the road from the airport to catch a glimpse of the pontiff as he passed by in his "popemobile," and tens of thousands more gathered in Santiago's Plaza of the Revolution Antonio Maceo for a papal mass that began a half hour late in the unrelenting afternoon sun.

But the hot weather and the delay did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm as the crowd jumped with joy and roared its approval as a statue of Cuba's patron saint made its way through the crowd.

"This is not political. You see, everybody here is happy, happy, happy," said Maria, a Santiago resident who asked that her surname not be used.

For 64-year-old Ana Cajigal and her daughter Mayra, 32, it was a chance to hear their second pope.

"We are very emotional, happy, we want peace in the world," said the older Cajigal, flanked by her daughter wearing a USA cap, not common in Cuba. Asked if she was sending a message as she posed for pictures, she smiled coyly and said, "It's for the sun."

Politics, however, were not far away. Shortly after two white doves were released as the mass began, a man charged the stage shouting in Spanish "Down with communism." He was quickly subdued, and none of it was visible to television viewers.

The pope himself made little mention of politics in his homily, until the very end, when he called on Cubans to "strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God."

Earlier, Benedict, 84, offered gentle criticism for both Cuba's authoritarian government and a U.S. trade embargo on the island that 's more than 50 years old in remarks he gave when he arrived at Santiago's airport at about 2:30 in the afternoon. He was greeted on the airport's tarmac by Cuban President Raul Castro, who wore a business suit and sported a red tie, despite the sweltering afternoon heat.

In his arrival remarks, Benedict said Cubans "wherever they may be" were in his prayers. He said he prayed for guidance for "the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom, liberty and reconciliation."

The word liberty, a politically charged word, was not in the prepared remarks that had been distributed to reporters in advance of the pope's arrival and was added by the pope apparently at the last minute.

Tweaking the Castro government, Benedict said, "Greater progress can and ought to be made" in relations between the church and state. In a criticism of the United States and other developed countries, Benedict said "not a few people regard" the world's current economic troubles "as part of a profound spiritual and moral crisis" afflicting the developed world.

For his part, Raul Castro criticized the five-decade U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and said Cuba was opening up and "changing all that needs to be changed." Like his brother Fidel's welcoming speech to John Paul II in 1998, Raul defended the pair's legacy of health care and education for all.

Benedict was scheduled to spend Monday night at a restored home for retired priests in the small mining town of El Cobre, home to Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, where he was to sleep on a new "memory foam" mattress donated by a furniture store in Miami. On Tuesday morning, he'll pray at the Our Lady of Charity shrine before leaving for Havana.

The pope's trip coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the small, doll-like wooden statue of the Virgin Mary bobbing in the Bay of Nipe after a violent storm. From that day forward, Catholics have revered her as Our Lady of Charity. For centuries, the faithful have prayed to Our Lady of Charity, now Cuba's patron saint, for her help.

The power of that faith was on display Monday as two planeloads of pilgrims from Miami who arrived before the pope were taken to the shrine, where the statue of the Virgin had been moved from its perch high above the altar to a more accessible place in front of it.

Most of the Miami pilgrims, some of whom had never visited Cuba before or hadn't been home since fleeing the Castro revolution, headed to the front of the hilltop church and knelt in silent prayer.

Olga Saladrigas, a resident of the Kendall area outside Miami, burst into tears.

"Being here with our Lady of Charity is one of the greatest blessings of my life,'' she said. "I talked with her about a blessing for my family and this country."

She added, "It is my land, it is my country and it is my people here. I believe we need to get along, build bridges — not walls — for a better future."

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who led the pilgrims, said their reception had been warm.

"For many of my pilgrims it was a first visit to Cuba — or a first visit back,'' he said.

"I think (Benedict) will give a message of inspiration and uplifting to the Cuban people,'' Wenski said. "It won't be a political message, but Cubans are tired of politics. It will transcend politics, but in this transcending of politics, it may be a transforming experience.''

As part of the pilgrimage, Wenski will celebrate Mass Tuesday in the Havana Cathedral, one of the oldest in the Americas.

While the German-born Pope Benedict lacks the charm and charisma of his Polish predecessor, his visit has stirred hopes among Cuban believers and Cuban exiles in Miami and elsewhere for change in an island nation that the Castro brothers have ruled for more than five decades, first Fidel, and then, since 2006, Raul.

"We await the pope with much joy. The Cuban people love the pope. The Cuban Catholic Church is very proud that the pope has shown a preference for Cuba, because it's the second such visit in which a pope has come," said Jose Julio Garcia, who was interviewed Sunday as his four-truck caravan, carrying dozens of Roman Catholic worshippers from the city of Camaguey, paused along the way to Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city. "The joy and the peace of our father, we hope, will accompany us and ... we want to show all of our faith."

Church leaders in Cuba and the United States are walking a fine line. On one hand, they're trying to boost the influence of the Catholic Church in Cuba, which has made tremendous gains in followers and charity work since John Paul II's 1998 visit. On the other hand, they're under pressure from staunchly Catholic Cuban exiles in the United States and Europe who think the church should use its moral authority to pose a stronger challenge to Cuba's autocratic regime and help bring about its end.

Even before he arrived, Pope Benedict caused a stir by suggesting during his visit to Mexico that Cuba's Marxist ideology is outdated and the country needs a new model. Overlooked were his comments that changes should come slowly and in a deliberate process, not unlike the sorts of openings already happening in a small scale under President Raul Castro.

Raul, 80, who assumed the presidency in 2006 when Fidel, now 85, fell seriously ill, has expanded self-employment, shrunk government jobs and scaled back subsidies to state enterprises. The communist government, however, continues to have firm control over many aspects of public life, and there are no opposition parties.

The government has been closely following the activities of the so-called Ladies in White, a small movement of women who wear white and gather at Masses at Catholic churches in Cuba to protest the treatment of the island's prisoners of conscience.

They're expected to protest sometime during the papal visit to Santiago, and the dissident group is still holding out hope that it will be able to speak with the pope when he arrives in Havana on Tuesday.

After a protest march Sunday outside the Santa Rita church in Havana's Miramar neighborhood, the group's leader, Berta Soler, said that all they wanted was "just a moment" with the pope to discuss human rights. The Castro government doesn't want the Ladies in White to attend the pope's Mass in Havana's Jose Marti Revolution Square, but Soler vowed that the women will make their presence known.

"We will be there, all of us, dressed in white," she said. "We won't stop until human rights are respected."

After Sunday's rally of more than 30 Ladies in White, Soler gave instructions for Tuesday's.

"You can't bring bags, Ladies in White," she said. "You can't bring photos. Don't bring signs. We won't be provoked. You need to wear comfortable shoes. Bring a little water. Bring a cookie, a caramel or something to eat."

(Whitefield reports for The Miami Herald. Ordonez reported from Havana.)


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