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Pope Francis flying to Havana this weekend

/ 05:21 AM September 19, 2015

HAVANA—Seventeen years ago, a newly named Argentine archbishop laid out his thoughts on the meaning of a papal visit to Cuba.

“Throu gh the presence, the voice and the prophetic mission of the Pope, the church offers a path forward to peace, justice and true liberty,” Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote. “Not everything will be the same after he leaves.”

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Millions of Cubans hope those words written about John Paul II’s 1998 trip to Cuba prove true when their author, now Pope Francis, flies into Havana this weekend.

Cubans are excitedly looking at the Pope’s 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States through the lens of his role as the mediator of detente between the two countries.

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New momentum

Many say they expect the visit to help transform the diplomatic warming from a phase of abstract political negotiation into real benefits for the Cuban people.

“The Pope achieved the reestablishment of relations between the two countries,” said Miguel Marcelino, a member of a worker-owned gardening services cooperative. “A big part of why he’s coming is so that there’s new momentum in that relationship.”

In interviews this week, people almost universally said they would be at Francis’ Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution on Sunday. Virtually none said they would attend because of personal faith.

“I’ve never been to a Mass. I don’t know what that is,” motorcycle taxi driver Jose Manuel Echevarria said. He’s going to the plaza to watch an event that he expects to have strong historical significance.

“He’s coming to Havana and then he’s going from Havana to the US,” Echevarria said of Francis. “It’s obvious, no? He’s not going for any other reason.”

Pastoral, not political visit

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Vatican officials are cautioning that the Pope’s mission is pastoral, not political, saying people should expect no explicit diplomatic message.

But some observers said it is clear Francis sees the visit as many Cubans do—as the second stage of his role in midwifing normal relations between Washington and Havana.

“Francis won’t explicitly be political at all when he’s here, but everything he does will be profoundly political in its implications,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

While the Pope values the social achievements of Cuba’s revolution such as free universal health care and education, he has staunchly criticized its decades of repression.

He looks to healing the rift between the US and Cuba as a way of steering the island on a path toward a new system that both cares for the needy and provides liberty while avoiding the excesses of capitalism, providing a potential model for the region.

“He has a very ambitious vision for Latin America, and Cuba plays a key role in that,” Ivereigh said.

Both Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro praised the Pope in their 2014 speeches announcing the deal.

Crucial element

For Obama, Francis’ involvement served as crucial political cover for a move that would have once been politically impossible in the face of objections from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida.

Raul Castro has spoken kindly of Francis, a fellow Latin American sympathetic to many of the ideals of Cuba’s revolution: social justice, nationalization and an antipathy to US global hegemony.

The Pope’s backing of detente with the US likely provided a crucial element of reassurance to Castro, whose communist government has long confronted its powerful neighbor.

“He’s a man he can trust and a global organization with the heft to carry through,” Ivereigh said. “It is really that that explains the greatest diplomatic success for the Vatican in a generation.” AP

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TAGS: Argentine archbishop, Cuba, Cubans, Havana, John Paul II, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, papal visit, Pope Francis
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