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Pope’s outreach to Cuba moves beyond Havana after stirring welcome

By David Montgomery

Pope Francis prays before a statue of the Virgin del Charity, Cuba's patron saint, as he arrives to celebrate a Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution, in Holguin, Cuba, Monday. The original statue is 403 years old and and stands just over a foot tall, but the petite wooden statue in a small-town church in eastern Cuba is among the most venerated Roman Catholic icons in the world and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands on the island.
Pope Francis prays before a statue of the Virgin del Charity, Cuba's patron saint, as he arrives to celebrate a Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution, in Holguin, Cuba, Monday. The original statue is 403 years old and and stands just over a foot tall, but the petite wooden statue in a small-town church in eastern Cuba is among the most venerated Roman Catholic icons in the world and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands on the island. AP

HOLGUIN, Cuba - Crowds took overnight bus trips and streamed before dawn into the heart of Cuba’s fourth-largest city Monday to greet Pope Francis on a visit to a region deeply linked to both the island’s Catholic past and the roots of the Castro revolution.

The pope’s trip to eastern Cuba marks the second leg of his trip and should again bring large crowds to a series of events, including a Mass in Holguin and prayers at a shrine near Santiago that has drawn the faithful for centuries. Its votive gifts include the Nobel literature medal left by Ernest Hemingway.

But the public outpouring for Francis — the first Latin American pontiff — also has shown the limits of openness by Cuba’s communist leaders.

Prominent Cuban dissidents were blocked by the government from trying to meet with Francis in Havana, and authorities could again keep a tight lid on activists.

“It doesn’t matter to be so tired and sleepy, we are happy to be here and we will always remember this,” said Angeles Ortega Esturo, 48, a junior high English teacher from Manzanillo in Granma Province, where Fidel Castro landed with a small force that would eventually topple the U.S.-allied dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

For Ortega Esturo, as for many, the pope’s ability to nurture a push toward warmer relations between the United States and Cuba is one of the pontiff’s inspiring accomplishments.

The bulk of Esturo’s family began leaving Cuba in 1967. Now, with a nudge from the pope, national and personal reconciliations are proceeding in tandem.

“We are getting close again in my family, just as our countries are,” Ortega Esturo said.

Many boarded buses before midnight in remote towns in order to make the journey to Holguin, where sunrise brought the promise of a scorching day with temperatures pushing 90 degrees.

Holguin (pronounced Ole-geen) is the inland capital of a coastal province that was observed by Christopher Columbus in 1492, who is said to have called it “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.”

The pope’s next stop, Santiago, also figures prominently in Cuba’s revolutionary lore - the scene of one of Fidel Castro’s first commando-style attacks on the forces of the U.S.-allied government in 1953, and the home for another revolutionary hero, Frank País.

Castro in 1959 used Santiago as the backdrop to declare the revolution’s victory.

In Holguin, security was tight, but the crowd flowed smoothly past guards with hand-held metal detectors. Guests with invitations to attend the Mass took places in white plastic lawn chairs.

Francis plans on Tuesday to depart for Washington to begin a U.S. trip whose agenda includes addresses to Congress and the United Nations.

The back-to-back visits to Cuba and the United States further resonates for Francis, who played a central role in opening negotiations between the Castro government and the Obama administration, which led to the restoration of diplomatic relations in July.

People waved Cuban flags and the yellow-and-white flag of the Vatican. They cooled themselves with fans carrying the message: “Pope Francis. Missionary of Mercy. Welcome to Cuba.”

“For us it’s a pilgrimage” to attend the Mass, said Caridad Rivas, 71, who sat in a wheelchair following a bus ride that began at 2 a.m. “We are united with him today more closely. He speaks our language. His culture is ours, he’s building a relationship with us Cubans.”

Nick Miroff in Havana and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2015, The Washington Post.

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