(NEW YORK) — Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba from Mexico on Monday, a huge event for any small country, but particularly one ruled by a Communist party that banned Christmas until John Paul II visited in 1998.
The government has given workers time off with pay to welcome Pope Benedict and attend an open air mass in eastern Santiago upon his arrival, and again in Havana on Wednesday, the pope’s last day on the island.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to turn out to see the pope. Signs of welcome line the freshly paved roads and avenues where the pontiff will pass. It is quite a contrast with other communist lands where he simply is not welcome.
Benedict, speaking aboard his plane to reporters as he flew to Mexico on Friday, said in Cuba “It is evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality… So you have to find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way.”
He said the church wanted to support that effort “in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society, as we want in the whole world.”
But the visit has already caused controversy.
The government’s most strident opponents at home and abroad charge the church is collaborating with a repressive regime. Supporters counter that it is part of the gradual economic and social change underway here that John Paul called for in 1998 when he said the island nation should open up to the world and the world to Cuba.
Thirteen dissidents took over a Havana church two weeks ago demanding Benedict intercede to end one party rule, only to be evicted by police. Dozens of activists were temporarily detained last weekend when they attempted to stage marches and warned off demonstrating when he is in the country.
Government opponents are demanding a meeting with the pontiff and are circulating a petition on the internet even as the Miami archdiocese brings hundreds of Cuban Americans home for the event.
“From the perspective of Miami Cubans, the visit presents another Elian Gonzales style dilemma because it pits two core values against each other. With Elian the values were family reunification versus hostility to the Cuban government. This time it’s devotion to the Catholic Church versus hostility to the Cuban government,” Jose Gabilondo, a Cuban American law professor at Florida International University, said.
Elian Gonzalez was the little refugee boy who survived a boat wreck in 1999 that killed his mother and nine others. Relatives in Miami refused to turn him over to authorities so he could be returned to his father in Cuba. Eventually, armed federal officers swept in and forcibly took custody of the boy and sent him back to Cuba.
President Raul Castro, who took over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, will meet Benedict upon his arrival in eastern Santiago de Cuba, where he will visit the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint and Our Lady of Charity, the Caridad de Cobre.
The pope travels to Havana on Tuesday for talks with Castro, the country’s bishops and most likely a retired, but still active, Fidel Castro.
Cuban authorities hope the visit will bring them further international legitimacy and repudiate the U.S. embargo and Washington’s efforts to isolate the country.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Ivana Kottasova, CNN