HAVANA: Pope Francis began his trip to Cuba Saturday with a message of solidarity.
After his plane landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, the Roman Catholic leader greeted the Cuban people by noting that this year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Vatican.
“Today, we renew these cooperative ties and friendship so that the church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and concerns with the freedom, means and spaces necessary to carry the news of the Lord’s kingdom to the existential peripheries of society,” he said.
The pope arrived in Havana just before 4 p.m. to begin a 10-day trip that will span the island nation and United States as the two former Cold War enemies make the transition to normal relations.
Francis played a crucial role in thawing the relationship between the two countries when he appealed to President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro last year and hosted delegations from each country to discuss rapprochement.
On Saturday, he pointed to the efforts to establish a new relationship between the two nations as “an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
“For several months, we have witnessed an event that fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two nations after years of estrangement,” he said. “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities.”
Moments after taking his first step onto Cuban soil, Francis was greeted by a small group of children carrying flowers.
Dressed in white, the children spent several minutes talking with the pope, who hugged them before continuing down a red carpet alongside Castro to their seats.
After a welcome ceremony at which a military brass band played the Cuban national anthem, Castro gave his welcome before the pope spoke. In his speech, Castro repeated calls for the U.S. to end its economic embargo of the island and for the return of Guantanamo Naval Station.
Castro said he shared the pope’s criticism of the global economic system, saying it has “turned money into its idol.”
The Cuban leader also echoed the pope’s concerns on climate change, and he thanked the pope for mediating discussions between Cuba and the U.S. Castro indicated he will be in New York next week when the pope speaks before the United Nations General Assembly.
“The re-establishment of relations has been a first step in the process toward normalization of the relationship between the two countries, which will require resolving problems and correcting injustices,” he said.
In Cuba, Francis will visit three Cuban cities –– Havana, Holguin and Santiago –– and El Cobre, an old copper-mining town outside Santiago where he will deliver the homily during a Mass celebrated at the shrine.
Thousands lined Havana’s streets to cheer as the pope’s motorcade drove by, many waving small Cuban and Vatican flags. Francis waved and smiled at the crowd, which cheered him from the airport to the home of the Vatican’s ambassador, where the pope was staying during his time in Havana.