The girls smiled warmly as they shook hands with Pope Francis, and he offered enthusiastic greetings in return. The pope may also visit retired leader Fidel Castro, 89.
“So far he’s sticking to the script of constructive engagement, with only mild, mostly veiled criticism, of the authoritarian regime”, said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University. But they’re used to it. Previous popes, including John Paul II, did not meet with Cuban dissidents either.
And late today, Francis traveled to Santiago to visit the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. Francis and Castro met in Cuba’s seat of government for a state meeting.
Monday is an important anniversary for the pope: On Sept, 21, 1953, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was just 17, he went to confession at his parish church in the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Castro, who is 89, rarely makes public appearances. According to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, the two discussed common problems of humanity, the global economic system and environmental degradation.
Castro’s son, Alex, photographed the meeting.
Thousands of Cubans welcomed Pope Francis this morning as he celebrated mass in the eastern Cuban city of Holguin. “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples”.
“This kind of service always leaves “your kind” out, leading to a process of exclusion”, he regretted.
Since landing, Francis has made comments that many have considered carefully critical, and he has criticized Cuba in the past.
Two unidentified men are taken away by security officers after they threw leaflets as Pope Francis arrives for a Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday September 20, 2015.
Most were released after a few hours but the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the country’s largest dissident group, said four of its activists remained in jail as of late Sunday.
With his arrival in Havana, where he was greeted by President Raul Castro, he became the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years – a remarkable record for any country, much less one with a small community of practicing Catholics.
The trip carries the added symbolic weight of the US-Cuban rapprochement that led the Cold War foes to restore diplomatic ties in July – a reconciliation the pope helped bring about in secret meetings.
Detente with the United States has also raised hopes on both sides of the Florida Straits that the millions of families divided by the 1959 Cuban revolution will be reunited.
Among the faithful there was overwhelming gratitude for the pope’s role in the new relationship between Cuba and the U.S.