Following a successful visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI lands in Cuba on Monday March 26 in a trip timed to coincide with the fiesta for Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity.
The Pope has so far combined religion with politics in his visit having fiercely denounced drug trafficking and the violence that drugs has brought to Mexico. He will first visit the southern city of Santiago de Cuba and then fly on to Havana where he is expected to celebrate Mass in Revolution Plaza on Wednesday March 28.
Technically, the island of Cuba is Communist and was an atheist state until the constitution was relaxed in the 1990's. Now, around 60 percent of the population consider themselves Catholic , although few openly practice their faith in public, according to CNN.
The Havana Times says that many people are looking forward to the papal visit, although he may find, as he did in Mexico, that his predecessor John Paul II is still held in great esteem and affection by the people of Latin America. In fact, many of the souvenir sellers had items with the previous Pope's image on for sale, rather than the less popular Pope Benedict. The paper also rather cynically suggests that the Cuban's are looking forward more to the increase in tourism to the country that a papal visit will bring rather than the actual visit itself, although thousands are expected to turn out to see Pope Benedict.
It was John Paul II who made the first historic visit by a Pope to Cuba at the invitation of Fidel Castro. His visit was hugely successful and made great in roads into repairing links between the Catholic Church and its flock in Latin and South America. A Senior Vatican analyst said:
"There was a kind of love affair between John Paul and Latin America,It just isn't the same with Pope Benedict."
According to Christian Today, dissidents are being prevented from leaving their homes or travelling to any of the places where the Pope will be stopping. It reports that on the plane flying to Mexico , the Pope spoke to journalists about his upcoming visit to Cuba saying:
The Church "is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion".Marxist ideology “no longer corresponds to reality” in the country and that “new models” needed to be found.
As reported by Digital Journal, the 'Ladies in White' dissident group have been a particular target of the Cuban government. Some members have been prevented from attending church for weeks with roadblocks set up to prevent them and other pro-democracy groups from reaching churches.
The Catholic News Service says that Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguéz has said the government is happy to talk with the Pope. He said:
"We are looking forward to an exchange of ideas.The social project of Cuba ... is open to an exchange of ideas. It is a democratic and coherent social project. Freedom is one of the supreme values of our culture and our people -- the freedom and dignity of the people."
Whether Pope Benedict XVI is able to win the hearts and minds of the Cubans remains to be seen.