Pope arrives in Havana with call for further US-Cuba thaw

Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere
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Pope Francis (L) speaks with Cuban President Raul Castro upon landing at Havana's international airport on September 19, 2015

Pope Francis (L) speaks with Cuban President Raul Castro upon landing at Havana's international airport on September 19, 2015 (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

Havana (AFP) - Pope Francis on Saturday urged the United States and Cuba to build on their nascent reconciliation as he arrived in Havana for the first leg of a high-profile trip that will also take him to America.

Cuban President Raul Castro was at Jose Marti airport to greet the Argentine pontiff, whose white skullcap blew off in a tropical wind as he exited his plane.

But Francis barely skipped a beat, blessing a group of children who welcomed him with flowers and then -- highlighting his role in brokering the Cold War foes' historic rapprochement -- calling on Castro and US President Barack Obama not to falter on the road to closer ties.

"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," he said in a speech from the tarmac.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities... as an example of reconciliation for the entire world. The world needs reconciliation in this climate we're living in, one of a Third World War by stages."

He also pledged the Church's support for the Cuban people, who face tight restrictions on their civil liberties under the communist regime and bear the weight of the economic woes that decades of isolation have wrought on the island.

Recalling Pope Benedict XVI's 2012 trip to Cuba and John Paul II's visit in 1998, Francis said that "today we renew those bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and concerns."

He added that the Church needed "the freedom and the means" to do its work in Cuba, which was an atheist state for more than three decades until a gradual reconciliation with religion in which John Paul II's visit played a key part.

Catholic schools are still forbidden on the island, something the Church has been pushing hard to change.

- 'Our advocate' -

Francis, 78, looked tired from the 12-hour trip from Rome, but smiled warmly at the tens of thousands of well-wishers who greeted him as his popemobile wound its way through Havana's palm-lined streets to the Vatican's nunciature.

"We hope God will help us and that when his holiness goes to the United States, he can be our advocate," said 32-year-old Yudelkis Geigel.

"He's Latin American, he's Argentine, he feels for us and our need to end this blockade," she said -- the word commonly used here for the US embargo on Cuba.

Francis's Cuban travels will also take him to Holguin and Santiago, the cradle of Cuba's 1959 revolution.

He will likely meet Castro's predecessor and brother Fidel, whom he asked Raul to greet for him.

Ahead of the pope's trip, the Vatican's secretary of state and number-two official, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in a TV interview that he hoped the eventual lifting of the US embargo would push the Castro regime toward "a larger opening from the point of human rights."

The Vatican has faced criticism from Cuban dissidents for engaging with the communist government. The pope's agenda does not include any meetings with regime opponents.

- Next stop: capitalism central -

The tour comes on the heels of the announcement of the US-Cuban rapprochement, which paved the way for the estranged neighbors to renew diplomatic relations in July -- a moment that Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, helped facilitate in secret negotiations.

Ahead of the pope's visit, Washington announced a further loosening of restrictions on business and travel with Cuba.

The American leg of his eight-day trip -- his longest so far as pope -- starts Tuesday and will feature landmark speeches to the US Congress and the UN General Assembly.

While he got a warm welcome in Cuba, the outcome of his first-ever visit to the United States looks less certain.

For some observers, the dominant themes of Francis's papacy -- concern for the poor, his strong stance in favor of action on global warming and his critique of consumerism -- can be read as an indictment of the American way of life.

But he is sure to be treated as a special guest by most Americans, including Obama, who will greet him personally on his arrival in Washington.