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Visiting Cuba, Pope Hopes To Renew Vatican Ties


I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week. Coming up, after a successful presidential runoff in Senegal and a military overthrow in Mali, we'll talk about questions of leadership in West Africa. That's coming up.

But, first, we turn our attention to Cuba, where Pope Benedict is continuing his tour of Latin America. He's in the midst of a three day visit to the island. Tens of thousands of people greeted him in Santiago last night.


LYDEN: Pope Benedict's visit is, in part, to honor the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, but the pontiff also visits with President Raul Castro today in an effort to improve relations with the communist country.

Joining us to talk about the significance of the trip is Nick Miroff. He's an NPR contributor covering Cuba and he joins us today from Havana. Welcome to the program.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Thanks, Jacki. Good to be with you.

LYDEN: Nick, so far, the pope's trip to Latin America has been well received. Crowds loved it when he donned a sombrero in Mexico, but with less than 10 percent of the Cuban population now practicing as Catholics, how important is this visit to Cuba?

MIROFF: Well, obviously, the visit's very important to Cuban Catholics and others are going to be focused on the pope's spiritual message. But I think, beyond that, it's important to all Cubans who get a chance to hear directly from someone other than their leaders and they're listening carefully for what the pope's political message will be as he urges Cuba to open up more and to embrace a greater role for the church and for spirituality in Cuban life.

LYDEN: So the pope led a public Mass last night and he's scheduled to lead another tomorrow. What did he say at Monday's Mass?

MIROFF: His message last night was mostly a spiritual one. I mean, if you could take away any kind of broader political message, it was for the government to continue opening up and to fulfill the words of John Paul II, who came here 14 years ago and urged Cuba to open to the world and for the world to open to Cuba.

But, beyond that, I think that his message last night was mostly geared toward the sort of spiritual side of his trip, the 400 year anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, Virgin of Charity, whose shrine is there in Santiago.

And, you know, I think, on some level, the expectation is that tomorrow's Mass in Havana, in Cuba's capital, will be more of an opportunity for him to tailor his message toward even a broader kind of secular audience and to have maybe a little bit more political content. And that will be his second and last Mass before he returns to Rome.

LYDEN: Nick, dissidents in Cuba are hoping to speak with the pontiff. What's expected of Pope Benedict with regard to dissidents on this visit?

MIROFF: Well, very little. And he's being criticized for that. He has said he has - or at least, the Vatican officials have said Pope Benedict doesn't have plans to meet with Cuba's dissidents, who have been protesting and demanding an audience with him during his visit. So, you know, I think, for dissidents, it's important. They want to be included in this trip, but as far as we know, there are no plans and he doesn't have a meeting with any dissidents on his agenda.

So that certainly brings some heat from folks in Miami and elsewhere who would like to see him at least show some support to their cause.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about Pope Benedict's visit to Cuba. Our guest is Nick Miroff, an NPR contributor and a Washington Post reporter.

Nick, what about the U.S. embargo against Cuba? Is the government hoping he might say something about that?

MIROFF: Yes, they are. I think they would like him to be even more explicit in criticizing and even condemning the embargo. The Vatican is already on the record as saying that the embargo hurts the Cuban people, that it's a useless policy and that it hasn't achieved its goals. So, at the same time, I think the government would certainly like for him to come out even more strongly against the embargo.

And for Pope Benedict, who comes with a message of reconciliation and unity, I think the embargo really is an issue and is something that represents kind of the reverse of the policy that the church would like to see in terms of encouraging a greater embrace and an end to this, you know, half century of bitter political division between Cuban people and also between Havana and Washington.

LYDEN: Nick, after the Cuban revolution, many priests were expelled from the island. Catholics were sent to reeducation camps. How are church and government relations today?

MIROFF: Relations between the church and the government are very good and Benedict said so as soon as he got here yesterday. Even though church attendance in Cuba is low, the church's institutional profile has increased in recent years under a Raul Castro.

And, you know, I think, in some ways, both Castro and the church need each other. Castro needs help building support for his economic reforms, which involve cuts to Cuba's welfare state and its socialist safety net. And I think Castro also needs a mediator who has credibility with Washington and with the exile community abroad who could bring the two sides together.

And then I think the church needs the Cuban government to allow it to continue to regain a greater role in the island's public life.

LYDEN: Nick, before we let you go, tell us a little something about Cuba's patron saint. This is the Virgin of Charity. It's a pretty colorful story.

MIROFF: Well, according to the church lore, two Cubans and a slave found a small statue of the virgin floating in the Bay of Nipe, which is in eastern Cuba, and the statue was on a small wooden raft and it was dry and it said, I am the Virgin of Charity. And, over the centuries, Cubans of all different faiths, especially those who practice Afro-Cuban Santeria, have been devoted to the statue.

And, you know, beyond that, I think the - you know, the virgin has become a sort of a symbol for all Cubans in a society that does have a lot of bitter divisions. The virgin is kind of a unifying symbol that appeals to religious believers and secular Cubans alike, as well as Catholics and Christians of other faiths.

LYDEN: Nick Miroff is a contributor who covers Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America for the Washington Post and he joined us today from Havana, Cuba.

Nick, thank you very much.

MIROFF: Thanks, Jacki. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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