SANTIAGO, Cuba -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, gently pressing the island's longtime communist leaders to push through "legitimate" reforms their people desire, while also criticizing the excesses of capitalism.
In contrast to the raucous welcome Benedict received in Mexico, his arrival in Cuba's second city was relatively subdued: President Raul Castro greeted him at the airport with a 21-cannon salute and a goose-stepping military honor guard, but few ordinary Cubans lined Benedict's motorcade route into town and the pope barely waved from his glassed-in popemobile.
Santiago's main plaza, however, came alive when Benedict arrived for his evening Mass, his main public event here before heading Tuesday to Havana. While the plaza, which has a capacity of about 200,000, was not fully packed there was a festive atmosphere, with Cubans dancing to the rhythms of a samba band awaiting Benedict's arrival and waving small Cuban and Vatican flags.
"It is a message of love, this visit," said Jorgelina Guevara, a 59-year-old homemaker as she waited for the Mass to begin. "The Cuban people need it."
For major public events and holidays in Cuba, local Communist Party leaders strongly encourage attendance, granting workers time off and keeping careful track of who shows up and who doesn't.
The trip comes 14 years after John Paul's historic tour, when the Polish pope who helped bring down communism in his homeland admonished Fidel Castro to free prisoners of conscience, end abortion and let the Roman Catholic Church take its place in society.
Benedict's message as he arrived was more subtle, taking into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over from his older brother in 2006 and the greater role the Catholic Church has played in Cuban affairs, most recently in negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners.
The pontiff, who at the start of his trip said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a much gentler message upon stepping on Cuban soil, saying he wanted to inspire and encourage Cubans on the island and beyond.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
The 84-year-old pontiff's voice was tired, and by the end of the day he seemed exhausted after a vigorous four days of travel. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged Benedict's fatigue but said his health was fine.
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious liberty and has good relations with all religious institutions. He also criticized the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said, adding that his country remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most forceful power that history has ever known" – a reference to the United States – to thwart the island's socialist model.
The two men greeted each other with clasped hands and wide smiles after the pope arrived in steamy, 88-degree Fahrenheit (31-degree Celsius) temperatures.
Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba inevitably sparked comparisons to his predecessor's, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
Benedict referred repeatedly to John Paul in his speech Monday, saying his visit was a "gentle breath of fresh air" that gave strength to the church on the island.
He also denounced the ills of capitalism – a theme he has touched on frequently amid the global financial crisis but which took on particular significance in one of the world's last remaining Marxist systems. Benedict bemoaned a "profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families."
Late Monday, Benedict celebrated an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a bishops' miter. Raul Castro was in the front row, and greeted the pontiff at the end of the service.
Just before the Mass began, a man near an area reserved for international press began shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!"
The shouting was heard by an Associated Press photographer and others. The man tried to enter the press area shouting "I only screamed that we are not free" and "nobody paid me anything," but he was restrained by security agents and led away. It was not clear who he was or what happened to him. The government had no immediate comment.
Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, where he will briefly pray Tuesday morning.
The statue, which is revered by Cubans Catholic and not, was brought to the Mass on the top of a truck to the joy of the faithful present.
"She is a beauty, the most extraordinary thing," Mercy Serra said as the statue made its way through the crowd. "She is the mother of all Cubans."
Cuban state television broadcast the Mass live, even turning over some of the commentary to a Catholic monsignor.
The crowd included Cubans wearing identical white "Bienvenido" T-shirts, as well as a few hundred Cuban exiles from the United States who flew into Santiago on special charter flights.
"It really does exists, the place where I was born in," said Rita Freixas of Miami Beach, with tears welling up in her eyes. Freixas, who left when she was just one year old, said she nearly came back in 1998 for John Paul's visit. "But my father had just died and he had been in the Bay of Pigs, and I just felt that somehow I would have betrayed him if I had come then."
She arrived with her two grown sons and her best friend; She said with a laugh that while she was waiting for the pope, her two sons had gone off in search of cigars.
Benedict will only be in Cuba for a little over 48 hours, and his limited schedule is sure to disappoint many who want a piece of his attention, from the dissident community, to returning Cuban American exiles and even representatives of imprisoned U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross.
The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with any of them, citing his advanced age and need for rest. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as "El Comandante."
A new wild card entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer. Lombardi said no request for an audience had been received but he suggested Chavez could attend Mass on Wednesday.
The one confirmed meeting is the pope's Tuesday encounter with Raul Castro in Havana.
Since taking over from Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro has ushered in a series of economic reforms, legalizing a real estate market, opening the door to limited private enterprise and turning over vast tracts of fallow government land to independent, small time farmers. Pressed by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, he has also cleared Cuba's jails of the last of 75 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown.
Cuba denies it holds any political prisoners now. Officials refer to dissidents as mercenaries in the sway of its U.S. enemies. Human rights groups say some Cubans remain jailed for their political activities.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations, and today the church is the most influential independent institution in Cuba, and magazines it operates have published frank articles calling for change.
But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics.
Lack of enthusiasm for the Church predates the 1959 Cuban Revolution. From the early years under Spanish colonial rule, Catholicism was the religion of the ruling elite while believers of Afro-Cuban faiths were forced to hide their ceremonies and mask their deities behind Catholic saints.
Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, including Santeria, and evangelism is on the rise with some 600,000 Cubans believed to be part of Protestant and or evangelical denominations, less than Catholics but rising.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Paul Haven in Havana, and Laura Wides-Munoz in Santiago, contributed to this report.
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