The Cuban government is not trying to use the pope’s upcoming visit to further its own interests, President Fidel Castro said Friday night.
In a national radio and television broadcast, Castro said that “there was no search for advantage or benefit” in inviting Pope John Paul II to the Communist island for five days.
Castro described the pope, who arrives Wednesday, as “very friendly, very respectful, a man with a noble face.”
Wearing a green military uniform, Castro spent the first hour and a half of his public appearance praising the Cuban elections of last weekend before mentioning the papal visit.
In unusually prominent attention to a religious official, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper on Friday dedicated a full page to an interview with a former Vatican diplomat as part of preparations for John Paul’s tour.
The state-run media have begun giving greater attention to the papal visit to Cuba, which was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992.
In addition to the speech and newspaper article, Catholic bishops in each city where the pope is to appear are being given local television time to promote the visit, church spokesman Orlando Marquez said.
The government’s Telerebelde, one of two channels in Havana, broadcast a 15-minute sermon Friday evening by Monsignor Carlos Baladron, Havana’s auxiliary bishop.
Baladron spoke about the benefits of leading a Christian life, and said the pope’s visit would be “like the steps of God in our history.”
As he closed, he stood facing the camera and delivered one of the few benedictions ever broadcast by the socialist television station.
Marquez said Friday the government has not responded to church requests for live broadcast of four papal Masses, although he is optimistic that at least the final Mass on Jan. 25 in Havana may be transmitted live.
The daily Granma featured an interview with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the retired Vatican secretary of state, on one of its eight pages Friday.
“The Holy Father has a great affection for the Cuban people” Casaroli was quoted as saying in Vatican City. “He has a great interest in seeing the situation in Cuba develop in a positive sense - positive not only internally but also facing the world outside.”
Speaking of Cuba’s former allies, the European Communist states which collapsed in 1989-91, Casaroli noted that those countries had “a form of government and ideology that obviously was not what we accepted.”
But he expressed dissatisfaction with the free-market societies that followed. “We have seen, speaking of Russia, the rise of mafias, of various sorts of corruption, and that for me has really been a great disappointment.”
He also noted that the Vatican generally has opposed embargoes such as U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba. “The blockade has caused suffering to many people,” he was quoted as saying.