Pope ends Cuba trip, calls for ‘basic freedoms’

March 29, 2012 6:48 am


The pope met with Fidel Castro for about 30 minutes, a Vatican spokesman said © AFP
HAVANA, Mar 29 – Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a visit to Cuba with a call for respect of “basic freedoms,” pursuing his persistent prodding of the island’s Communist authorities to embrace change.

After an open-air mass in Havana’s Revolution Square and a meeting with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, the 84-year-old pontiff used a final public appearance at the airport in the Cuban capital to convey his message.

With President Raul Castro looking on, the pope said he hoped the “light of the Lord” would help Cubans build a “society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled.”

“May no one feel excluded from taking up this exciting task because of limitations of his or her basic freedoms,” Benedict said.

He added that he hoped Cuba would one day be the home “for all Cubans, where justice and freedom coexist in a climate of serene fraternity” — perhaps a reference to Cuban exiles, many of whom live in the United States.

Benedict also rounded on the half-century-old US economic embargo on Cuba, saying such “restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country unfairly burden its people.”

The pontiff, who was making the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, was seeking to bolster the Church’s ties with authorities in Havana, and to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.

But he was also trying to forward a subtle message for change — even though Vice President Marino Murillo insisted Tuesday there would be “no political reforms.”

“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” the pontiff told the crowd of some 300,000 people packed into Revolution Square, including the president.

“The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom,” he said, looking out at a sea of waving Vatican yellow and Cuban blue, white and red flags.

Hailing the government’s granting of freedom of religion since 1998, Benedict — who appeared tired at the end of his six days in Mexico and Cuba — said Cubans’ quests for truth generally should also respect “the inviolable dignity of the human person.”

His comment seemed an oblique reference to dissidents pressing for political opening in the Americas’ only one-party, Communist country. Dozens were rounded up and arrested during the pope’s visit, dissident sources said.

Human rights groups such as the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation have had their phone lines cut since Monday. The cell phones of prominent activists were also unreachable, Amnesty International said.

The pope scheduled no meetings with dissident leaders, a big disappointment for them.

Shortly after celebrating mass, Benedict — leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — met with 85-year-old Fidel Castro for about 30 minutes, a Vatican spokesman said.

The aging revolutionary leader, clad in a dark track suit and plaid shirt, and with his physician son Antonio steadying him, asked the pope about liturgical changes and papal responsibilities, the spokesman added.

At the airport in Havana, Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, bid farewell to the pope, saying the visit — which included a mass in Santiago and a visit to a nearby shrine — had been held “in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

Last week, Benedict said Marxism “no longer corresponds to reality,” and argued Cuba could be helped by looking at new models. But a dialogue about political and economic opening can be challenging here because of starkly different ideas about what freedom and democracy mean.

Cuba’s leadership dreads the idea of joining the global economy, which it sees as corrupt and unjust. The top-down economy is subsidized and propped up by socialist Venezuela, its key regional ally.

The Cuban government also insists democracy already exists, and sees the papal visit as a way of showing the world it is tolerant of religious expression.

Catholics account for some 10 percent of Cuba’s population of about 11 million. The country was officially atheist for almost four decades until 1998.

The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating the release of prisoners.

After Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, expectations ran high that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark sweeping change.

But more than a decade later, Cuba remains isolated and its state-run economy feeble, with most workers eking out a living on $20 a month.

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