Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president, said he hoped to meet with Pope Benedict XVI today, after the pontiff vowed to pray for those denied freedom on the communist island and the government rejected political change.
The 85-year-old Castro, in an opinion article published on government website Cubadebate today, said he would “happily” meet with the pope and requested a “few minutes of his very busy time” after the pontiff said he is open to a meeting with the former revolutionary leader.
Expectations of such a meeting had dominated the pope’s three-day visit to Cuba, which wraps up today with the celebration of an open-air Mass in the same Revolution Square where Castro for decades harangued his American enemies before handing power to his brother Raul Castro in 2006.
Benedict has used the first papal visit to Cuba since John Paul II’s in 1998 to express support for dissidents while so far declining to meet them in person. He brought up humanitarian cases in a meeting with President Raul Castro yesterday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, without giving details.
“If you listen closely to his speeches you’ll realize that all those hopes, all that pain, all those dreams are present,” Lombardi told reporters in Havana yesterday.
While the Roman Catholic Church behind the scenes has pushed along reforms to open up the economy and grant more religious freedom, the country’s political system remains dominated by the communist party.
Marino Murillo, vice president of the Council of Ministers, ruled out any political change yesterday. Still, he left the door open to further economic liberalization after the government last year allowed Cubans to seek self-employment in some professions and to buy and sell property for the first time since the 1959 revolution.
The pope, who turns 85 next month, made no comments after a 40-minute meeting with Raul Castro at the revolutionary palace in Havana. He had earlier offered prayers for those “who are deprived of liberty” in Cuba.
During a Mass in Santiago de Cuba on March 26, security guards pulled away a man who tried to approach the pope shouting “down with communism.” Images broadcast on foreign TV networks covering the visit showed him being hit in the face several times by the crowd, once with a gurney by a man wearing a Red Cross vest.
Today’s Mass is expected to draw tens of thousands of Cubans. Having attended the first papal Mass in Cuba almost 14 years ago, Carmen Martinez said she will return to the same square today, though with fewer expectations.
“This visit has been good but there hasn’t been as much noise about it,” said Martinez, a 60-year-old nurse. “There needs to be changes to improve the country. Governments reach their limit and inevitably there must be change.”
After securing the release of dozens of political prisoners in recent years, the Church stood by as police rounded up dissidents last week and helped evict protesters seeking refuge in a Havana cathedral. While the pope criticized Marxism as outdated and urged Cubans to seek out new models before traveling to Latin America’s least devout nation, he has avoided such statements since arriving in Cuba.
Raul Castro welcomed the pope in Santiago de Cuba on Monday, declaring his government’s respect for religion. He said the government shares values with the church and that capitalism was suffering from a “systemic crisis” fueled by “excessive selfishness in opulent societies.”
The pope made similar comments, deploring a global economy that was experiencing a “deep moral and spiritual crisis” fueled by excessive selfishness.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Cuba for treatment for his cancer, said yesterday that he had no plans to “interfere” with the pope’s visit.
Cubans have started returning to the pews after Fidel Castro declared Christmas a holiday following the visit of John Paul II to the once officially atheist nation.
Benedict asked Castro today to also make Good Friday a holiday, Lombardi said. An official reply is expected to take some time, he said.
Only half of Cuba’s 11.2 million people identify themselves as Catholics compared with 85 percent in Mexico, according to a 2011 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
While the door is shut to political change, Murillo, the architect of recent economic policies, said that Cuba has studied the experiences of China, Vietnam and Russia to open their economies with an eye to further changes.
“We’ve done it with the aim of learning and understanding the economic concepts those countries have applied, which doesn’t automatically mean we’re going to copy what others did,” Murillo said.
Cuba plans to build 13 golf courses and theme parks by 2020 to attract tourists as the price of nickel, the country’s biggest export, declines, Deputy Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo said on March 26. Cuba’s gross domestic product expanded 2.5 percent last year, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with 4.3 percent growth for the region.
Pressure has been building on the Vatican to speak out against repression by the Castro government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said March 19 that the U.S. would like to see the pope call on the Cuban government to release political prisoners. She said the detention of 70 activists from the Ladies in White a week before the pope’s arrival was “reprehensible.”
About 30 members of the group, made up of wives and relatives of jailed dissidents, attended Mass on March 25 in Havana, reiterating their request for a one-minute audience with Benedict.
On March 13, a separate group of 13 activists occupied a church in Havana to demand an audience with Benedict only to be evicted two days later with the archdiocese’s support.
The church would like to be seen as a brother that can “walk together with the Cuban people as it has done until now and increasingly does so, knowing that it’s a long road, a difficult road, a road that has already taken many twists and will require lots of time,” Lombardi said yesterday.