Francis hails U.S.-Cuba reconciliation as “a victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue”
By Nick Miroff
HAVANA — Pope Francis arrived in Havana Saturday to begin a nine-day visit to Cuba and the United States, praising the path of normalization between the two long-estranged neighbors as “an example of reconciliation for the entire world” that “fills us with hope.”
Francis was greeted by Cuban president Raul Castro upon arriving from Rome, and asked in his remarks to “convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel,” the island’s ailing, 89-year-old former ruler.
In his brief statement, Francis called the process of detente between Cuba and the United States– in which the Vatican played a central role– “a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue.” Citing Cuban national hero Jose Marti, Francis said a “system of universal growth” had prevailed over “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.”
If that line amounted to veiled criticism of the Castros’ 56-year rule over the island, it wasn’t immediately clear.
In his speech welcoming Francis, Raul Castro assured the Pope that religious freedom is “consecrated in Cuba’s constitution,” and said his visit would be a “transcendental and enriching experience for our nation.”
Castro repeated his gratitude for the Pope’s role in facilitating detente with Washington. “The reestablishment of relations has been a first step in the process toward normalization of the relationship between the two countries, which will require resolving problems and correcting injustices,” he said.
Both speeches were broadcast live on Cuban state television. Francis then left in a motorcade for the Vatican diplomatic mission in Havana, riding in the back of a French-made Peugeot pickup truck and waving to the crowds lining the roadway. Francis has no other scheduled public events Saturday, and will rest in preparation for tomorrow morning’s 9 am Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The outdoor Mass under the blazing Cuban sun may be a challenge to the 78-year-old Pope in his stuffy vestments. It is the same place where John Paul II spoke in 1998 and Benedict in 2012, but their visits occurred during Cuba’s more-temperate winter months.