Pope Benedict XVI touched down in Cuba after a visit to Mexico. The last papal visit was 14 years ago, when Pope John Paul II met with then-president Fidel Castro. Since then, Cuba has changed, at least in terms of religious freedoms.
Politically though, not so much.
In fact, there's a grand debate going on now in Cuba over just what the Pope's visit might accomplish, politically and spiritually. Yanis Leydi, a young mom who lives in downtown Havana, said there's no question it will be a huge boost to the nation, regardless of one's faith.
"This trip to Cuba helps to unite us, Cubans, more. There are those who are religious and those who aren't, and the hope is that he'll bring people together, to care for one another, independent of politics or religion," Leydi said.
So much has changed with both politics AND religion since the first papal visit to Cuba 14 years ago OF Pope John Paul II. as a result of that trip, then president Fidel Castro lifted religious restrictions that had been in place since the 1959 revolution. Batista said she's excited to take her young son to see the Pope's Mass this Wednesday and feel free to do so:
"He's the Pope! He represents–Wow!–like God on earth," she said.
On Sunday at the Santa Rita church in Havana's Miramar neighborhood, Father José Pérez Riera spoke about the Pope's visit:
Pérez Riera also stayed away from politics. He stressed that the overall meaning of the Pope's visit is to present Christ to the world.
After the mass though, one group of women–activists known as the Ladies in White–took a far more aggressive tone, chanting "liberty, liberty" in the streets.
The women, relatives of political prisoners, held their now customary protest march, from the Santa Rita church down a large Havana street. They are unique in Cuba for regularly and openly criticizing the Communist regime for abusing human rights.
Under the shade of a large ceiba tree, protest leader Bertha Soler spoke to foreign reporters and called for the release of jailed political dissidents in Cuba. The press was also anxious to see whether–as usual–pro-government crowds would turn up and harass the women.
In eastern Cuba, the activists claimed that 18 of their members were recently detained. But in Havana the march went peacefully.
In one of Havana's poorer neighborhoods, people were far more muted about the Pope's visit — though not entirely a-political. Roberto, who only gave his first name, is an auto mechanic, thin and underemployed. He picked up some extra work on Sunday, and said he'd spend his pay on milk for his two children.
Regarding the Pope's visit, he said, "It doesn't matter to me whether he comes or not because for us — for the poor people here — we won't receive anything from the Pope."
He said that the Pope's visit will do more to benefit the Cuban government, to let the world know that it tolerates religious freedom and the Church's critical view. And while Roberto was more open than he might have been in the past. He cut the interview off, saying "it's not good to talk about how we live here."
Even before touching down on Cuban soil, Pope Benedict made headlines stating that Marxism, "no longer corresponds to reality." In response, President Raul Castro's foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez offered the brief response that Cuba would, "listen respectfully to the pontiff." Whether the Pope will repeat his words directly to Castro this week is unknown.
Ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's visit, the activist group known as the Ladies in White or Damas en Blanco, held their now customary protest march down a main Havana street. (Photo: Monica Campbell)
Yanis Leydi, pictured with her father, plans to take her young son to attend this Wednesday's Mass in Havana to be delivered by Pope Benedict XVI. (Photo: Monica Campbell)