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Pope gently prods Cuba’s leaders for ‘legitimate’ reforms

Pope Benedict XVI was greeted upon his arrival by President Raul Castro. The church’s influence in Cuba has grown in recent years. Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Cuba - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba Monday in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, gently pressing the island’s 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, 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.


The trip comes 14 years after John Paul II’s historic tour, when the Polish pope 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.

“I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be,’’ he said. 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 religious institutions.