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article imageEcstatic crowds for 'pope of the poor' on Revolution Square

By Rigoberto Diaz (AFP)     Sep 20, 2015 in World

Some camped out all night on Havana's Revolution Square, others rose at dawn and tried to find a space amid the throng.

All were eagerly trying to get as close as possible to the first Latin American pontiff, whose image as the "pope of the poor" and role in fostering the US-Cuban rapprochement have made the native Argentine a beloved figure in a region troubled by gaping inequality and a problematic imbalance of power with the United States.

"Francis our friend, the people are with you!" the crowd shouted as Pope Francis arrived at the Cuban capital's iconic square in his popemobile.

"We've been here since 2 am, but it wasn't hard at all. We are so very happy to welcome the pope to Cuba, a great pope who's full of mercy," said 43-year-old math teacher Yaniurka Hernandez.

Antonio Velasco said he got there even earlier: 10 pm.

"We haven't slept. But we have a lot of love for the pope and for Jesus Christ," said the shoemaker, who came with 29 other members of the Los Pinos parish, on the outskirts of Havana.

When daybreak came, soft drink vendors did a brisk business on the square as the tropical heat set in despite a cloud cover.

A giant altar was erected on the square next to its towering sculpture of revolutionary icon Che Guevara, a fellow Argentine.

Like Guevara, Francis is seen as a friend of Cuba, especially since it emerged that he helped facilitate the secret negotiations that led to the United States and Cuba restoring their long-severed diplomatic ties in July.

Pope Francis arrives on the popemobile at Havana's Revolution Square to give the first mass of ...
Pope Francis arrives on the popemobile at Havana's Revolution Square to give the first mass of his visit to Cuba, on September 20, 2015
Juan Lopez, AFP

"What we want from this pope is for relations (with the United States) to improve, we want peace, harmony and unity for all Cubans," said Didiet Sterling, 36, who like the majority of Cubans practices Santeria, a religion with African roots that has incorporated elements of Catholicism.

"There's only one God, shared by all religions," he said, adding that Francis had passed near him and was "radiant" despite his 78 years.

Havana has been swarmed by foreign tourists around the pope's visit, especially from Mexico, Venezuela and his native Argentina -- all of whose flags could be seen waving in the crowd of hundreds of thousands that packed Revolution Square.

Nearly 200 American Catholics also flew in on four charter flights organized by the archdiocese of Miami.

"I came as a tourist and I'm taking advantage of the occasion to see the pope," said Claudia, a 50-year-old Argentine.

"The Cuban people are beautiful, but you can tell they don't have a lot. It will come before too long," she said.

The pope's schedule also includes a meeting with young Cubans -- a demographic feeling the pain of the communist island's difficult economic transition.

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