Pope lands ‘to bless the people of Cuba’

HAVANA (AP) –Welcomed by President Fidel Castro and multitudes of Cuba’s hard-pressed but hopeful people, Pope John Paul II began a historic pilgrimage Wednesday to this island of embattled faith and struggling revolution.
The pope told the crowd at Havana’s airport he was praying that Cuba would become a land of “freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace.”
Castro made clear he saw no reason to change the course of Cuba’s revolution, telling John Paul that “we choose a thousand deaths rather than abdicate our convictions.”
Just minutes after landing on what he called a “happy and long-awaited day,” the pontiff spoke out on the U.S.-Cuban standoff that has isolated this Caribbean nation.
“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” he declared in an arrival statement.
And he firmly endorsed what he called the “legitimate desires” of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba — its quest for more privileges under Castro’s communist government.
For his part, Castro denounced the U.S. embargo as “genocide,” and sought to identify his revolution’s ideals with the church’s.
“Another country will not be found better disposed to understand your felicitous idea … that the equitable distribution of wealth and solidarity among men and peoples should be globalized,” Castro, one of the world’s last communist leaders, said in his welcoming address.
While the Pope avoided the subject of Cuba’s political structure, he made it clear that the Roman Catholic Church was looking to make inroads in a country where the church has very little influence and power.
Castro has loosened some strictures on the church since the early 1990s, but Catholic leaders want still more “space” — more access to the public media, more freedom to import foreign priests, perhaps eventually even a restoration of some Catholic education.