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Pope’s Havana visit raises questions of whom he’ll meet

By David Ariosto, CNN

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) – Wrapping up his visit to Santiago de Cuba and bound for Havana, Pope Benedict XVI has sparked widespread speculation that he will meet with the island’s former President Fidel Castro.

Church officials say Benedict is scheduled to meet again with President Raul Castro, along with his family. The meeting could include Raul Castro’s famous older brother, who stepped down from power in 2006 after battling illness, though it is not clear if that will occur.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also arrived on the island over the weekend, reported by Cuban state television to be in Cuba for radiation treatment for cancer.

It’s also not clear whether Benedict will meet Chavez, who has frequently traveled to Cuba for medical care and to meet with the country’s leaders.

On Wednesday, Benedict is scheduled to preside over a Mass in the capital’s Revolution Plaza, where 14 years ago Pope John Paul II addressed massive crowds in the historic first papal visit to the island.

Large crowds are expected to turn out for Benedict.

Officials have been busy planning for his arrival, splashing fresh coats of paint across buildings and tacking posters announcing his arrival across the city.

The trip is timed to the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, but uncertainty looms over what will be said, with whom the pope will meet, and what the visit will actually mean for Cubans.

“For me, I’m very happy he’s coming,” said Juana DeArmas, a shopkeeper in the capital’s Old Havana neighborhood. “I was here when John Paul came, and there were always plenty of tourists that followed.”

Benedict, 84, arrived in Cuba’s southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Monday, and gave a service at the city’s Basilica del Cobre the following day.

Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Raul Castro and the nation’s clergy, including Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

With a red carpet rolled out to meet the pope’s airplane, Castro walked beside the pontiff to a pair of large wooden chairs where the two stood for a brief photo op. A brass band played Cuba’s national anthem and other tunes as they stood together, while artillery rounds were fired off nearby in celebration.

Benedict told the audience that he seeks to emphasize “the importance of faith,” highlighting the need for good relations between the church and the Marxist state.

Castro welcomed Benedict, saying his country has worked for peace and justice, but noted that even “14 years after John Paul’s visit,” the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba persists.

Clad all in white, Benedict walked with Castro, who was dressed in a dark suit, and greeted other state officials and clergy.

Crowds of flag-waving Cubans lined the street on which Benedict’s motorcade traveled, as Cuban state television captured both ground and aerial footage of the trip.

Benedict then celebrated Mass in the city’s square, drawing huge crowds as legions of musicians playing wind and string instruments performed during pauses in his sermon, supported by what appeared to be concert-grade sound systems.

The visit to Cuba is part of a two-country tour the pope has used to both spread the Catholic faith and address political issues in the region.

His first stop was in Mexico, where he denounced violence in that country brought by the ongoing drug wars. Benedict also blasted Cuba’s Marxist political system Friday, saying it “no longer corresponds to reality.”

The pope’s comment, delivered to reporters aboard the flight from Rome to Mexico, sparked widespread speculation as to what he would say when he addresses the Cuban people directly.

The island nation’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, responding to the comment, said his government considers “the exchange of ideas useful” and is still perfecting its system.

The visit is seen as a possible tourism boost to the island’s cash-strapped economy, as many residents seek to make use of a series of recent free market reforms that have slowly swelled the number of private businesses in the country.

In 1998, Fidel Castro greeted a much different pontiff when thousands were introduced to John Paul, who famously urged the nation “to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba.”

“There was a kind of love affair between John Paul and Latin America,” said CNN senior Vatican analyst John Allen. “It just isn’t the same with Pope Benedict.”

In Mexico, an archbishop called on worshippers to stop making comparisons between Benedict and the former pope, who drew massive crowds across Latin America and visited every country in the region before he died in 2005.

In Cuba, though John Paul helped to warm church-government relations, the country’s ties with religion have remained complicated.

Decades earlier, Castro’s Communist revolution sought to stamp out religious influence in Cuba, confiscating church property and expelling religious workers, some of whom had supported anti-Castro forces.

The country was officially atheist until the 1990s, when the constitution was amended and references to atheism were replaced with secularism. Christmas was recognized as a holiday at that time, and Communist Party members were permitted to openly practice their faith, if they had one.

Church officials now say the island is about 60% Catholic, though few openly practice.

Still, religious access to state television and the administration of religious schools remain largely restricted, which could be a point of emphasis during the pontiff’s trip, observers say.

“These papal visits can have an impact,” Allen said. “They can kind of jar things loose. And it seems that under Raul, Cuba is taking baby steps toward normalization.”

But many on the island seem skeptical that the trip will yield lasting results.

While the country’s Roman Catholic Church has often been lauded for its role in recent reforms, it has also received heavy criticism for appearing too cozy with the government. Rights groups say the nation has largely emptied its jails of political prisoners, and yet it continues to harass the country’s activists.