Pope Francis hailed the detente between the United States and Cuba as a model of reconciliation, and urged Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro to continue working to build normal ties, as the pontiff arrived in Havana on Saturday for a 10-day tour of both of the former Cold War foes.
Francis' surprisingly direct call for progress toward normalization came after weeks of Vatican assurances that he would not explicitly address politics during his pastoral trip to Cuba and the U.S. Francis served as mediator and guarantor of 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year.
"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," Francis said in a speech on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport.
"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, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."
At an airport arrival ceremony headed by President Raul Castro, Francis was given a red-carpet welcome in Havana complete with a military honor guard.
Smiling children handed him flowers, and a band played the Cuban national anthem before Castro and then the pope took turns speaking. Island church leaders were also on hand to greet him.
Castro praised Francis' critiques of the global economic system, saying it has "globalized capital and turned money into its idol."
In a lengthy speech welcoming the pope at Havana's international airport, Castro said Cuba's communist government has "founded an equitable society with social justice." He thanked the pope for mediating negotiations on detente between the U.S. and Cuba.
Like Francis, Castro has also called for the end of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. The Cuban president also hopes for the return of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people gathered along the route where Francis was to travel from the airport.
Sandra del Moreno traveled from San Salvador with four friends and was clutching the Central American nation's flag. The 51-year-old woman said "We love this pope, although we would have liked it if he had visited El Salvador."
A block away three kids were playing with a ball made from rags. Ten-year-old Kevin Duvergel and 9-year-old Marlos Duenas exclaimed in unison: "Pope Francis is going to pass by!"
Not everyone in Havana is thrilled at being asked to turn out for the pope. State-employed medical office worker Rafael Rivero says he's not sure if he will come watch Francis' motorcade, and many co-workers feel the same way.
He says, "Sure, go, if you're a practicing Catholic but it shouldn't be an obligation on a Saturday afternoon. It's our day off."
Cuban officials are offering a day's pay, snacks and transportation to encourage state workers to line the pontiff's route from the airport to the Papal Ambassador's home. University students also have been recruited.
After being greeted at the airport by Castro, Francis was due to rest for the remainder of the day ahead of his first big Mass on Sunday in Havana's Revolution Square, an official meeting with the Cuban president, a vespers service and his first encounter with Cuba's young people.
After flying from Cuba to the U.S. on Tuesday he will, like his predecessors, grab the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution. Elsewhere in the U.S., Francis will be delivering the message that Hispanics are the bedrock of the American church.
His U.S. visit boasts several firsts for history's first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on U.S. soil by canonizing the controversial Spanish missionary Junipero Serra.
It's largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never been in the U.S. and spent only a few hours transiting Cuba years ago. He confessed that the United States was so foreign to him that he would spend the summer reading up on it.
His popularity ratings are high in the U.S., but he also has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over what he calls the excesses of capitalism. That has endeared him to Raul Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.
Still, Francis has been on record criticizing Cuba's communist — and for decades atheist — revolution as denying individuals their "transcendent dignity."
The Associated Press