HAVANA – Pope Benedict XVI held private talks Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro and sought an expanded role for the church in Cuban life as part of a broader mission to preach hope and freedom to the communist nation.
Senior Cuban officials, however, sounded a defiant note and made clear that Cuba’s important and ongoing reforms are directed at its economy, not at its political system.
“In Cuba, there’s not going to be political reform,” Marino Murillo, a senior economy official who is one of the rising stars in today’s Cuba, told reporters. “In Cuba, we are talking about updating the Cuban economic model to make our socialism sustainable. And that has to do with the well-being of our people.”
Benedict has been using this trip to Latin America – only the second time a pontiff has visited revolutionary Cuba – to deliver a subtle but pointed message on behalf of change and human rights. On Monday, during an open-air Mass attended by thousands in the seafront city of Santiago, he told Cubans to build “an open society, a better society.”
On Tuesday, Benedict met with Raul Castro for nearly 40 minutes. His legendary brother, Fidel, did not attend.
Raul Castro, in a dark business suit, greeted Benedict warmly, clasped his hand and led him along a red carpet at the government’s Revolutionary Palace. They sat in large chairs alongside the Vatican and Cuban flags and exchanged gifts.
Earlier Tuesday, Benedict prayed at Cuba’s holiest shrine, the Our Lady of Charity Basilica, which honors the patron saint of the island.