Pope reminds Castro that improvement in ties with US “a process”


– Pope Francis hailed the resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba as an ongoing process and denounced global wars in his first address in Cuba on Saturday.

Pope Francis arrived in Cuba at the start of an historic nine-day trip that is also set to take him to the United States.

“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a process,” Francis said of the two neighbours after landing in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

Minutes earlier, Cuban President Raul Castro had highlighted the US embargo on Cuba that persists despite the recent improvement in ties, the controversial issue of the US naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and other pending issues.

The decades-old embargo “is cruel, immoral and illegal,” and the territory on which the US naval base stands “must be given back to Cuba,” Castro said.

He however thanked Francis for his role in brokering the talks and acknowledging that the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two nations on July 20, after 54 years, is “a first step.”

In his first remarks in Havana, the pope urged US and Cuban leaders to persevere in their efforts “as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”

“The world needs reconciliation in the current atmosphere of a third world war in instalments that we are experiencing,” he said.

Before going to the airport Saturday, the pontiff met with a Syrian refugee family who is being hosted inside the Vatican. The family came to greet him at his residence, the Santa Marta House, the Holy See said.

On the plane, Francis told reporters that he was “very moved” as well as shocked by the encounter, and noted that “you see pain in these faces.”

“I think the world currently hungers for peace,” he said, pointing to the war in Iraq and Syria that has prompted a wave of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe in recent weeks.

Castro, a Marxist and atheist who has said in the past that he is a great admirer of the Argentinian-born Francis, highlighted the common ground between Catholicism and communism as he greeted the pontiff.

Castro cited his own brother and predecessor Fidel Castro as well as the pope to highlight the need to preserve the environment and change current global production and consumption patterns. The prevailing capitalist system, Raul Castro said, is “unfair and immoral.”

“These are Christ’s young people,” a young crowd cheered for the pontiff at the airport.

“Christ is alive!” they shouted as they waved Cuban and Vatican flags.

As he got off the plane, Francis shook hands with Castro and received flowers from a group of Cuban children. The two men, who already met in the Vatican in May, smiled profusely before witnessing the military honours befitting the pontiff as head of the Vatican state.

Francis is a Jesuit, and both Castro brothers attended a Jesuit school as children. Raul Castro has said he plans to attend the three masses the pope plans to say in Cuba starting Sunday on Havana’s iconic Revolution Square.

In his first address, Francis appeared to mention the dissidents that he is unlikely to meet during his trip to the Caribbean nation.

“I would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet,” Francis said.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Havana to cheer for the pope on his way to the nunciature, where he was staying on Saturday and Sunday nights. He rode a popemobile built onto the back of a pick-up truck, with open sides and no top.

Francis is the third pope to tour communist Cuba after John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012. He was scheduled to meet both former president Fidel Castro as well as the island’s current leader on Sunday.

The pope is to travel on to the US Tuesday and to stay there until September 27, making stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

This is set to be Francis’ longest international foray since he was elected leader of the Catholic Church two and a half years ago. It is his third trip to Latin America, after visiting Brazil in 2013 and Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay as recently as July.