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Castro Welcomes Pope to Cuba

Pope John Paul II began a historic pilgrimage today to Cuba, land of hardship, embattled faith and an aging, struggling revolution.

Long delayed, much anticipated, the ailing pontiff's visit to the Caribbean nation may help set a new course for the Cuban church, if not for Cuba itself.

Fidel Castro, dressed in a business suit instead of his usual fatigues, was among those waiting to greet the pope at the airport. Four children, dressed in white, held up a box of Cuban dirt so the pontiff could continue his tradition of kissing the ground as he arrived.

Castro and the pontiff, who used a cane, moved slowly away from the pope's plane along a red carpet, at one point pausing to speak together briefly.

Black-robed cardinals in scarlet sashes stood among Castro's straight-shouldered soldiers on the tarmac, crowded with foreign reporters and camera crews.

Even before touching down at 4 p.m. EST at Havana's airport, the pontiff addressed some contentious issues surrounding his visit, telling reporters on the papal plane he hoped for more respect for human rights in communist Cuba, and for a "change" in the U.S. economic embargo.

But no matter what else his visit brings, said Orquidea Mesa, one pious parishioner here, the pope will bless Cuba's 11 million people who have suffered through a four-decade long political showdown.

Communist party workers joined church volunteers in tacking the pope's portrait and "messenger" slogan to palm trees, telephone poles, and even the backs of bicycle cabs. One was even spotted on the national Capitol, where Castro's revolutionaries once declared Cuba an atheist nation.

In an instant, Havana had become a city of startling contrasts. The starkest of all being the scene at the hallowed Plaza of the Revolution, where the papal procession route passed towering rival images of Christ and of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

To many Cubans, who blame the U.S. trade embargo for shortages, the pope's visit offers a glimmer of hope.

"I hope he makes an appeal for us against the U.S. embargo," said mailman Jorge Puig Lopez. "That's the No. 1 thing."

The pontiff took on the embargo in a brief meeting with reporters aboard his plane. Asked whether he had a message for Washington regarding the sanctions, he replied, "To change, to change."

John Paul also told reporters en route that Castro's revolution has improved education and health in Cuba, but needs to make "progress in the order of human freedom."

But those in the US Cuban exile community who may hope the visit will precipitate major political change here may be disappointed. The church and the pope don't have the kind of influence in Cuba they exercised in the pope's native Poland, where papal words helped galvanize the movement that toppled communism.

In fact, strengthening the Cuban church may be the most realistic goal of the papal visit, first discused by the Vatican and Havana in 1979 but long postponed because of its political sensitivity.

Each morning, beginning Thursday, the pope will travel to a provincial city for an open-air Mass, and then return to the capital for afternoon events.

In Havana, he will meet with Castro and other Cuban leaders Thursday, and officiate at a Mass on Sunday in the Plaza of the Revolution, an event that may draw a half-million or more Cubans in a grand finale to a week that many here hope will change their country forever.

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