Pope Benedict XVI Visits Cuba

Catholics hope papal presence will pur political and social change.

March 27, 2012, 5:20 AM

March 27, 2012 — -- Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba this week marks a historic visit to a country in the midst of a period of transition, which the country's Catholics hope will spur further political and social change.

Benedict, who arrived Monday and spent the night near Cuba's Virgin of Charity icon in the small mining town of El Cobre, will fly to Havana today to meet with President Raul Castro.

His brother, Fidel Castro, is not expected to attend the meeting but might make an appearance at the centerpiece of this trip, an open-air mass in Havana's Revolutionary Square Wednesday.

The 84-year-old pontiff spoke Monday during a Mass Monday in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city and hometown of the Castros.

"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith … that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," Benedict said to the crowd in the midst of a light rain.

The pope arrived on this trip carrying not only the hopes of Catholics, but of all Cubans, here and abroad, who hope his visit will help spur further freedoms.

In an earlier speech, given while Raul Castro, 80, sat by his side, the pope acknowledged them. "I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said.

While just 10 percent of Cubans regularly attend Mass, many identify as Catholic, and most see the visit as an opportunity for the pope to appeal to the Castro government on behalf of the Cuban people.

During the Mass Monday, a man rushed forward, shouting "Down with communism" but was quickly removed.

Pope Benedict has thus far been more muted in his public criticism of the country that has been run by the Communist Party of Cuba since the 1960s, although before his journey, he told reporters: "It is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality."

He will have an opportunity to deliver his message directly to President Castro when he meets privately with him this evening.

Since taking over from brother Fidel, 85, in 2006, Raul Castro has been trying to face up to the reality that Pope Benedict describes, mainly by opening the country's economic system, if not its political one.

Small businesses can now be seen across the island country, with bustling restaurants, little jewelry shops and buildings being refurbished in Havana, now that property can be bought and sold for the first time.

In Bauta, a small town just outside of Havana, portraits of revolutionary heroes line the road. But change has come here, as seen in the fruit stands surrounding the central square, something that didn't exist the last time a pope visited Cuba.

Businesses like these put much-needed cash into the pockets of people who can barely make ends meet on their official salaries.

Saomy, 24, is a doctor who also runs a side business of burning CDs and DVDs. She told ABC News that brings in three times what she is paid by the state -- $16 a month -- for her work as a doctor.

Although the church has developed a close relationship with Raul Castro, critics complain that the Vatican could be putting more pressure on the regime. The church says it's trying to strike a delicate balance as an intermediary between the people and the government in a nation that was once officially atheist.

Ana, an English teacher in Bauta and a devout Catholic, hope's the pope's visit will spur even more change.

"The pope comes here to visit us Catholics to confirm our faith. But also he can help us with the government. He can talk to them," she told ABC News, noting that Cuban Cardinal Jamie Ortega had helped with the release of some political prisoners.

"That's a good sign," she said. "But I tell you, it's a slow process."

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