THE POPE IN CUBA
-WELCOME TO CUBA…Pope Benedict XVI becomes only the second pontiff to visit Cuba today, 14 years after John Paul II spoke these words: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.” After a three-day visit to Mexico, Benedict has a tougher sell in Cuba – a nation that until recently was officially atheist and continues to limit the spread and growth of the church. As the AP puts it, “Benedict leaves behind Spanish-speaking Latin America’s most Roman Catholic country Monday and arrives in its least.” Benedict’s first stop is Santiago de Cuba (3pm ET), home to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden statue revered by Cubans, Catholic and not. The pope will celebrate an open-air Mass in Santiago’s main plaza (6:30 ET) then pray at the sanctuary housing the statue Tuesday before heading to Havana, where he will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro – and presumably his brother Fidel. Benedict’s three-day stay in Cuba will of course spark comparisons to John Paul II’s historic 1998 tour, when Fidel shed his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana’s airport.
-PRESSING FOR CHANGE: HOW FAR WILL BENEDICT GO?…On the flight from Rome, Pope Benedict said it’s “evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality,” and he urged Cubans to “find new models,” more than a half-century after the revolution that brought communist rule. How far will Benedict press for political change and human rights? The WSJournal profiles two men of the cloth and their different views on this. Jaime Ortega and José Conrado Rodríguez were once teacher and student at a Cuban Catholic seminary. Decades later, the teacher, now a cardinal, and the student, a country priest, are dueling over the soul of the island – and the part the church should play in saving it. Their debate is over the church’s role in pushing for reform as the 53-year hold on power of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl starts to wane. Cardinal Ortega, the senior Catholic clergyman in Cuba, offers cautious criticism of the government, while Father Rodríguez, from his parish pulpit in Santiago, preaches open opposition. After Pope John Paul II called for greater freedom in Cuba in 1998, Fidel Castro didn’t budge much on his policies, which included restrictions on the church. But President Raúl Castro has been quietly leaning on the church to pick up some of the burden from his financially ailing state, including giving the church a new role in education. Mr. Castro has even opened the door to criticism from several religious periodicals as he inches the island toward reform.
-THE CHARISMA FACTOR…The AP again: With his first visit to Mexico, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never match the charisma and personal connection forged by 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 who attended Benedict’s Sunday Mass. “I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm.” Benedict charmed the crowd at Mass by donning a sombrero for his popemobile tour through the estimated 350,000 people. “We saw a lot of happiness in his face. We are used to seeing him with a harder appearance, but this time he looked happier, smiling,” said Esther Villegas, a 36-year-old cosmetics vendor. “A lot of people didn’t care for him enough before, but now he has won us over.” The feeling was mutual. “I’ve made a lot of trips, but I’ve never been welcomed with such enthusiasm,” Benedict told a wildly cheering crowd who greeted him late Sunday. “Now I can understand why Pope John Paul II used to say, ‘I feel like I’m a Mexican pope.”‘
CHAVEZ IN CUBA TOO…BUT NO PAPAL VISIT
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba over the weekend to begin radiation therapy to the return of his cancer, but there appear to be no plans for Chavez to see the pope.
OBAMA AT NUCLEAR SUMMIT AMID FEARS OF NORTH KOREAN ROCKET LAUNCH
-AT THE SUMMIT…Jake TAPPER reports that President Obama directly addressed North Korean leaders in a speech Monday and scolded them for their nuclear pursuits, but also urged resolution of the issue. “Today we say, Pyongyang: have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the North Korean people,” Obama said. The President also had what will likely be his last meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev - and in an aside asked the Russian for some “space” on the delicate matter of missile defense.
-THE ROCKET: ITS ADVERSARIES AND POINTS OF IMPACT…Both Japan and South Korea have warned they may attempt to shoot down the North Korean rocket if it strays into their territory. Akiko FUJITA reports Japan’s Defense Minister said today he’s considering deploying interceptors in Tokyo and Okinawa. The Guardian reports North Korea has moved the main body of the rocket into a building site in North Phyongan province and has been making preparations for a launch. Akiko notes the rocket launch is expected to happen in two phases, with the first stage of the rocket landing less than 100 miles off the west coast of South Korea. The second is expected to land in the Yellow Sea, roughly 120 miles east of the northern island in the Philippines.
-MORE “GREEN-ON-BLUE” VIOLENCE…In the latest such attack, an Afghan man in an army uniform shot and killed two British service members inside a NATO base in southern Afghanistan today. Aleem AGHA and Muhammad LILA report the incident took place at the entrance of a base in Lashkargah – and that the attacker was also killed.
-BALES’ 17TH VICTIM…The NYTimes reports the military charged Bales with murder for the death of the unborn baby of one of the victims, according to an Afghan official. This would explain the discrepancy between the initial report of 16 rather than 17 deaths.
JAPAN: LAST NUCLEAR REACTOR STANDING
Japan has shut down another nuclear power station, leaving only one of 54 nuclear reactors in operation. The final reactor on the island of Hokkaido is due to be switched off in May. Akiko FUJITA notes this is an incredible turnaround when you consider the facts before the Fukushima accident: Japan was the world’s 3rd largest user of nuclear energy, one-third of the country’s power source came from nuclear reactors and 54 reactors were operating.
TWO NEW MAJOR QUAKE FAULTS DISCOVERED IN PACIFIC
FUJITA again – on the news that researchers have discovered two new faults off the coast of Japan in an area already crowded with quake activity. One of the newest faults lies off the coast of Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, and is nearly 190 miles long. Researchers say any jolt along both faults would trigger an earthquake with a magnitude 8 to 9.
-TURKEY CLOSES SYRIAN EMBASSY, SHELLING CONTINUES…Reuters reports Turkey suspended all activities at its embassy in Damascus today. Last year Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad he should quit, having lost patience with his former friend’s refusal to end a violent crackdown on popular unrest over the past year.
-LIFE IN DAMASCUS…Meanwhile, the LATimes paints a portrait of life in the Syrian capital, where people are aware, but not actively engaged with the uprising and the feelings about it are mixed.
PAKISTAN TO CHARGE OSAMA BIN LADEN’S FAMILY FOR ILLEGAL ENTRY
A defense lawyer for Osama bin Laden’s family says a Pakistani court is set to charge his clients with illegally entering and residing in the country. Mohammad Amir says the charges will be made against three of bin Laden’s widows and two daughters when the hearing resumes April 2. The court gave the five women copies of the case and evidence against them Monday. The women have been in detention since last May when U.S. commandos killed bin Laden at his home in a Pakistani garrison town.
AHMADINEJAD: U.S. CAN NO LONGER DICTATE POLICY TO THE WORLD
In Tajikistan for a conference on Afghanistan’s economy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said both NATO and the United States could no longer dictate policy to the rest of the world. Al Arabiya reports the U.S. delegation to the conference, headed by Robert Blake, left the hall when Ahmadinejad began to speak and returned after his speech was over.
UNDERCOVER VIDEO SHOWS TREASURER SELLING ACCESS TO PRIME MINISTER
The Sunday Times reports David Cameron has admitted to using his taxpayer-funded flat in Downing Street to host dinners for major Tory donors. The revelation came as the party reeled from a newspaper sting in which the Tories’ chief fundraiser, Peter Cruddas, was caught boasting about the access and influence available in return for cash. Cruddas was filmed by undercover Times reporters claiming he could secure them an audience with the Prime Minister or Chancellor. The access on offer would depend on the size of donations, he said, suggesting that donors’ wish lists would be “put into the policy committee at No 10″.
A WIN FOR DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: There is jubilation and relief in Senegal today where voters have elected a new president and the incumbent has conceded defeat — all peacefully. The election is considered an important victory for democracy in the West African country where violent protests erupted after 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade declared he would run for a third term in violation of constitutional term limits. Senegal’s new president is 50-year-old Macky Sall, a geologist and a former prime minister.
U.K. SEEKS PROBE INTO CHINA DEATH
From Gloria RIVIERA and Karson YIU: The U.K. has asked the Chinese government to launch an investigation into the death of a British businessman who claimed to have close links to the family of Bo Xilai, the Communist Party leader whose downfall has thrown Chinese politics into turmoil. The mysterious death of Neil Heywood in the Chinese city of Chongqing last year is emerging as a key element in the drama surrounding Mr. Bo, who was sacked as Chongqing’s Communist Party chief this month. Mr. Bo was brought down after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, triggered the political drama by seeking refuge from Mr. Bo in a U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. Chinese police cars surrounded the building after he went inside on Feb. 6. After spending the night, he was taken away by Chinese security agents the following day and hasn’t been seen since. Mr. Wang claimed to have fallen out with Mr. Bo after discussing his belief with his boss that Mr. Heywood was poisoned, people familiar with the case said in interviews with The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Wang also claimed that Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in a business dispute with Mr. Heywood, according to one of those people.
NEW ZEALAND LANDMARK DEMOLISHED
Despite some noble efforts to stop it – the deconstruction of the badly-damaged Christchurch Cathedral is underway as aftershocks weakened the 130 year old structure following last year’s 6.3 earthquake. The cathedral featured prominently in news coverage of the quake and its aftermath.
RUSSIA: ROUGH DAYS FOR ITS SATELLITES
Gina SUNSERI reports Russia de-orbited the $150 million dollar Express4 satellite. The satellite was sent crashing back to Earth in the Pacific ocean north of Hawaii, it was unable to achieve proper orbit because an upper stage rocket failed.
HORROR IN BRAZIL – CAUGHT ON TAPE
A TV Correio news reporter, Josenildo Gonçalves, arrived at a crime scene March 19 to find the victim of an attempted murder, suffering from several gunshot wounds. As Gonçalves was reporting at the scene, live, the shooter came back to finish the job. The victim was shot in the head and Gonçalves ran for safety. He later returned to the scene as an ambulance arrived. Further details are scarce, but according to some reports, the victim is alive and stable in hospital.
A THEME PARK FOR NAPOLEON?
Joe SIMONETTI flags this one: The French plan to build a theme park to honor Napoleon - just south of Paris – at the scene of one of his last victories. You’ll have to wait until 2014 to visit.
MISS UNIVERSE CANADA DISQUALIFIED…BECAUSE SHE WAS BORN A BOY
Our friends at CTV on this weird pageant story – the contestant calls it discrimination; the authorities say, rules are rules. http://watch.ctv.ca/news/latest/candidate-out/#clip644814
AVALANCHE SCIENCE TO MAKE ICE CREAM TASTIER?
Yes, that’s right. The BBC reports avalanche experts are helping to study how ice cream’s structure changes when it is stored in a household freezer. Using samples of ice cream scanned with an X-ray machine, Nestle is hoping to reveal the exact conditions under which ice crystals merge and grow. By knowing how it freezes, there’s the possibility of an even better taste!