Pope Francis heads to Cuba, US to “be close to people”

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Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Cuba and the United States for the first time starting Saturday – a trip that is full of political signals and highly-charged meetings. Expectations are high over the Argentinian pontiff’s visits to both countries.

Pope Francis has had plenty of time to prepare the trip to Cuba and the United States that starts Saturday: during the European summer, he has had no general audiences, no travel, few appointments.

The upcoming trip was however “certainly an important part of his summer,” said papal spokesman Federico Lombardi.

The words Francis will utter as he addresses Cuban President Raul Castro, the US Congress, US President Barack Obama and the United Nations, among others, will have been carefully selected. After all, the whole world is eager to hear them.

This is Francis’ tenth trip outside Italy as pope, and his first to North America and the Caribbean. After many visits to Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, which Francis himself has described as “peripheral” countries, the pope will now visit a global superpower.

The United States will be the first member of the G-7, the world’s most affluent countries, that Francis is visiting – with the exception of a very brief visit to Strasbourg last year.

The four-day stopover in Cuba is hardly incidental, however. The Vatican mediated last year to secure the thaw in relations between the communist country and its decades-old enemy, the United States, and the two countries restored their diplomatic ties on July 20.

“The fact that he is putting both nations into one trip is a message, because it clearly highlights once again the efforts to bring both countries together,” Father Bernd Hagenkord, head of the German department at Vatican Radio, told dpa.

Cuba never formally banned religion, but it was officially an atheist nation for decades. In more practical terms, atheism was a prerequisite for membership of the powerful Cuban Communist Party, and religious fervour ran low.

Christmas was for decades a regular working day, but it finally became a symbol of papal influence: it was made a public holiday in 1998, after the historic visit by the late pope John Paul II.

Good Friday followed in 2012, at the request of then-pontiff Benedict XVI, and the island’s authorities have clearly warmed to religion in recent years.

The stakes are high for Francis, and not just in terms of the Cuban calendar.

“If [the pope] continues to talk as he does, I am going to start praying again and return to the Catholic Church. I mean it,” Raul Castro said after a meeting with Francis in the Vatican in May.

The 84-year-old Marxist leader said he was a great admirer of Francis, and he even promised to attend every papal mass on the island.

There are to be three in Francis’s four days in Cuba: on Havana’s Revolution Square, in the eastern city of Holguin and at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, in Santiago.

Cuba became a secular, as opposed to atheist, country in the 1990s, and since Raul Castro formally succeeded his brother Fidel as Cuban leader in 2008, the Roman Catholic Church has gained prominence as a major partner in talks with the government.

In 2010, it brokered the release of scores of imprisoned dissidents, and it remains virtually the only recognized social actor allowed to convey to some extent the concerns of the banned political opposition to the Castro government.

Such a role as mediator is not easy, however. When Benedict visited the island, the opposition complained that the pontiff did not have time for them.

Three years later, the prominent dissident group Ladies in White, who meet for mass every Sunday and protest against the Cuban government after the service, is trying to meet with Benedict’s successor and attend the papal mass Sunday in Havana. However, they expect the authorities to prevent them from getting there.

“It would be good for the Holy Father to be aware of this,” said Ladies in White leader Berta Soler.

For now, Cuba pardoned 3,522 prisoners to mark the pope’s visit, but none of them are regarded as political prisoners by the opposition.

It also briefly detained scores of members of the Ladies in White and other dissident groups less than a week before Francis’s arrival.

The Vatican is delivering conflicting signals too.
Spokesman Lombardi said that Francis is expected to make room in his schedule to meet the elderly Fidel Castro, probably on Sunday. A meeting with dissidents would be harder to arrange.

“The Cuban context will demand all the diplomatic ability the pope can muster,” prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez said on Twitter.

Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Cuban Roman Catholic Church, warned against expecting too much from Francis’s trip.

“People’s expectations are often excessive,” he told dpa. “The changes brought about by a papal visit are of a long-term nature.”

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