Pope Benedict XVI followed in the footsteps of his predecessor's groundbreaking trip to Cuba on Monday, hoping to renew the faith in Latin America's least Catholic country.

Cuban President Raul Castro came to the airport in the eastern city of Santiago to welcome Benedict, just days after the Pope declared the island's Marxist system outdated. Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the Pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba's tightly controlled arrival ceremony.

The pontiff was scheduled to rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Then he was to spend the night beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pontiff at Havana's airport, and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

Since then Cuba has changed presidents and is starting to open up, artist and intellectual Miguel Iglesias told CBC News.

The country is "more relaxed …" he told CBC reporter Connie Watson, "more different moment — inside the country and outside the country, too."

Obvious changes

Those changes a particularly obvious in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. Once the place where Fidel Castro gave speeches for hours at a time, it's set for the Pope's mass on Wednesday. Giant pro-revolutionary messages and the iconic face of Che Guevera rise side by side with a huge poster of the Virgin of Charity. 

The papal visit is "very emotional for me," Loreta Lajinada said as she strolled through the plaza with her 83-year-old mother, who isn't strong enough to attend the mass. "This chance to see two different Popes in Cuba. It's just splendid."

She was careful with her words while speaking with a reporter, but not as afraid as she would have been a few short years ago.

"We Cubans are Catholics, that is our roots. But we had a problem. That's all I'm saying, I'm stopping there," she said before continuing in a rising voice: "The church was prohibited  There was a gap here that didn't happen in any other Latin American country."

Among the Americans who crowded a small stand selling religious items near Havana's cathedral is Father Arthur Rojas from New York, an Hispanic-American who said he was moved and inspired to be on hand for the Pope's visit.

"This church here is not fully free — perhaps partially free," Rojas told CBC News. "And yet the church has endured and it's starting to come back. It also gives me strength and the desire to speak up and defend religious freedom in my country where right now it is under attack.

After landing, the Pope talked of sharing the "just aspirations and legitimate desires of Cubans, including prisoners and their families." 

 

'This church here is not fully free — perhaps partially free.' — Father Arthur Rojas, American priest in Cuba for papal visit

Human rights activists inside and outside Cuba are hoping Benedict will speak out against what they call Cuba's routine repression before he leaves on Wednesday.

Earlier Monday, the Pope donned a sombrero and was serenaded by mariachi bands, embraced by Mexicans who called him their brother. The pope has a bit of a tougher sell as he heads to a Cuba that until recently was officially atheist.

Cheering crowds waving flags and Vatican-yellow balloons gathered Monday at the airport in Leon to see him off. Benedict leaves behind Spanish-speaking Latin America's most Roman Catholic country and arrives in its least, hoping to inspire the same outpouring of faith on the communist-run island that he did in Mexico's conservative Catholic heartland.

'They see him like a grandfather'

"Some young people rejected the Pope, saying he has an angry face, but now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon who attended Benedict's Sunday Mass. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."

Benedict charmed the crowd at Mass by donning a sombrero for his popemobile tour through the estimated 350,000 people. He put on another one later Sunday night when he was serenaded by a mariachi band as he returned to the school where he has been staying.

"We saw a lot of happiness in his face. We are used to seeing him with a harder appearance, but this time he looked happier, smiling," said Esther Villegas, a 36-year-old cosmetics vendor. "A lot of people didn't care for him enough before, but now he has won us over."

The feeling was mutual.

"I've made a lot of trips, but I've never been welcomed with such enthusiasm," Benedict told a wildly cheering crowd who greeted him late Sunday. "Now I can understand why Pope John Paul II used to say, 'I feel like I'm a Mexican pope."'

While Cubans eagerly awaited Benedict's arrival, the political overtones on the second leg of his trip were far greater than what he encountered in Mexico.

Cuba's single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.

John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations.

Catholic Church influential in Cuba

But problems remain. Despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools, and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.

However, the Catholic Church is now the most influential independent institution in the country, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.

In the weeks leading up to Benedict's arrival, the government cracked down on dissidents with detentions. But on Sunday, the dissident group known as the Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest outside a Havana church without incident.

With files from the CBC's Connie Watson