Pope Francis Praises Cuba-U.S. Normalization of Relations

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A boy holds a flag in the Vatican's colors and a Cuban flag in Havana on September 19, the day Pope Francis begins a nine-day tour of Cuba and the United States. Stringer/Reuters

Updated | HAVANA (Reuters) - Pope Francis told former Cold War foes Cuba and the United States on Saturday to set an example for the world by deepening their recent rapprochement that he helped broker.

His zucchetto skullcap flying off in the Caribbean breeze at the start of a nine-day tour of Cuba and the United States, the Argentine pontiff used his arrival speech at Havana airport to praise this year's normalization of diplomatic relations.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities...on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world," he said.

Better sensitized to the issue than predecessors because of his Latin American roots, the 78-year-old pontiff facilitated a back channel for talks and sent missives to Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama at a delicate stage in the secret negotiations in 2014.

That bore fruit with a prisoner swap, opening of embassies, and easing of some travel and trade restrictions, although a half-century-old economic embargo is still in place, only removable by the U.S. Congress.

Cubans lined the streets of Havana waving flags in the colors of Cuba and the Vatican, and holding banners with the slogan: "Missionary of mercy, welcome to Cuba!"

Raul Castro—who like his brother and former revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was baptized a Catholic and educated by Jesuits—met the pope after his 12-hour flight from Italy. It was the third papal visit to Cuba in less than two decades.

Raul Castro thanked the pontiff for his help with the U.S. rapprochement, but also used his welcoming speech to criticize Washington's embargo and occupation of the Guantanamo naval base on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island.

Cuba, he said, had been a model of internationalism and humanism in past decades. "We have done that while being blockaded, insulted, attacked, with a high cost in human lives and major economic damages."

CHURCH'S PROGRESS

Despite making Cuba constitutionally atheist and repressing Catholics in the early years after their 1959 revolution, the Castro brothers have relaxed that stance since the 1990s.

Raul Castro even told Francis, a Jesuit, earlier this year he may start praying again and return to the Church.

Francis urged further backing for Cuban Catholics "so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the kingdom to the existential peripheries of society."

He is to celebrate Mass in Havana on Sunday in Revolution Square, where a huge picture of Jesus Christ has been temporarily hung alongside permanent images of revolutionary heroes Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

The pope will also visit the cities of Holguin and Santiago before flying on Tuesday to the United States, where he will meet Obama and address the U.S. Congress and United Nations.

While in Cuba, he is expected to call for the United States to end its trade embargo, which Obama further weakened on Friday with a package of regulatory changes.

But once in the United States, the pope may tread more lightly, aides said, to avoid the appearance of meddling in the web of legislation, vested interests, and decades-old resentments that are slowing the pace of change.

Cuba's ruling Communist Party will welcome any papal criticism of the embargo and may have to bear a corresponding call for greater political tolerance from the government, which still runs a one-party state and jails and harasses dissidents.

An estimated 60 percent of Cuba's 11 million people are baptized Catholic, the Church says, but fewer than 5 percent attend church, and a majority of Cubans are believed to follow Afro-Cuban religions.

"I'm a devout 'Santero'—the Church is for old people!" laughed Eduardo Gutierrez, 19, sitting with his girlfriend on Havana's languid seafront. "But after what Francis has done for us, I am going to Revolution Square to show him my respect."

This article has been updated with remarks delivered by Pope Francis upon his arrival in Havana.

Pope Francis Praises Cuba-U.S. Normalization of Relations | World