Cuba: Thousands turn out to see Castro greet Pope in Havana

Click to follow
Thousands of Cubans lined the road leading from the airport to the capital, Havana, last night to welcome the arrival of Pope John Paul II. Phil Davison, Latin America Correspondent, reports.

Havana had seen nothing like it since Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries drove into the city victorious in January 1959. This time, it was Pope John Paul II in his glass-sided Popemobile who brought out hundreds of thousands as he drove in from the airport.

There was none of the 1959 euphoria yesterday but the size and friendly welcome of the crowds surprised even devout Roman Catholics in a communist nation which was, until recently, officially atheist. President Castro had urged residents to turn out, even providing free buses, but most seemed to be there more out of curiosity than religious faith.

Even before the 77-year-old Pope arrived, his host appeared to have obtained what he most wanted from the trip. Chatting to reporters on board his plane from the Vatican, the Pope in effect called on the United States to lift its 35-year-old embargo, virtually a total blockade of the Caribbean island.

Mr Castro, 71, had hoped the Pope would make a public pronouncement against the embargo, which has helped cripple the Cuban economy since the collapse of the island's former ally and supplier, the Soviet bloc.

Too frail to bend to kiss the ground as he used to on earlier trips,the Pope instead kissed some Cuban soil held up on a tray by four Cuban schoolchildren. He will hold his first mass today in the central city of Santa Clara before returning to Havana for talks with Mr Castro.

In a welcoming speech at Jose Marti airport, Havana, Mr Castro, in a dark blue double-breasted suit and looking healthier than in recent months, attacked the U.S. embargo as "genocide" against the Cuban people. Apparently aiming to defend his early persecution of Catholics, eased only over the last few years, the Cuban leader listed historic wrongs committed by the Catholic church, from massacres by the conquistadores of South America, to the Spanish Inquisition.

Looking tired but well, the Pope responded with several subtle criticisms of Mr Castro's regime, as well as what appeared to a veiled criticism of the embargo. He said he prayed "that this land may offer to everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace. May Cuba open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

Greeting Cuban Catholics, who only over the last couple of years have been allowed to worship openly, the pontiff noted that the Cuban church had "at times a scarcity of priests and difficult circumstances". In what many saw as a suggestion that the spread of Christianity could be the path to democracy in Cuba, he added: "Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ... in this way, all things will be made new".

Answering Vatican reporters' questions in four languages on board his Alitalia MD-11 over the Atlantic Ocean, the Pope appeared to confirm what some analysts had predicted, that he might play a diplomatic role between the longtime enemies on either side of the Florida Straits. "Perhaps both Cuba and the United States are looking for a better way," he said.

"You know very well that I am thinking about human rights and what I can say to guarantee human rights,"the Pope said on his plane. "The same that I have spoken about in Poland and so many countries beginning in 1979. Human rights are fundamental rights, and the foundation of all civilisation. I brought this conviction with me from Poland in confrontation with... a communist totalitarian system."

Opponents of Mr Castro have compared the Pope's five-day visit to Cuba with his efforts towards ending Communism in his homeland, hoping he may spark a transition towards democracy in one of the last bastions of communism.

The Pope credited the Cuban revolution with advances in education and health. Asked what he would like to hear from Mr Castro during their meeting today, he said: "The truth, the truth. His own truth as a man, as president, as the so-called commandante of the revolution. Also the full truth of his country, about relations between church and state."