Pope, Castro meet as official squashes reform hopes

Pope Benedict and Cuban President Raul Castro met on Tuesday for talks on a papal trip that has sparked hopes for economic and political change.

Havana: Pope Benedict and Cuban President Raul Castro met on Tuesday for talks on a papal trip that has sparked hopes for economic and political change, but one national leader said there would be no political reform on the communist island.

Cuban television showed the pope and Castro in the Palace of the Revolution at the beginning and end of an hour-long meeting, but they did not speak to the press.

They were expected to affirm improving relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church and discuss the Church`s desire for a greater role in Cuba.

A Vatican spokesman said former leader Fidel Castro, who may or may not meet with Benedict, did not attend the talks.

Benedict arrived for what is the second papal trip to Cuba in history at a time when Raul Castro has initiated reforms boosting private enterprise and reducing the state`s role. His aim is to strengthen the country`s struggling Soviet-style economy and assure the future of communism.

He wants to cut 1 million jobs from bloated government payrolls, which is about 20 percent of Cuba`s total workforce of 5.2 million.

To help deal with the social implications of the reforms, Raul Castro has embraced the Church as interlocutor on social issues and has improved relations that were sour for decades after Cuba`s 1959 revolution.

Some Cubans have expressed hope that economic changes would be accompanied by political change in the country where the only legal political party is the Communist Party, but Marino Murillo, a vice president in the Council of Ministers and the country`s economic reforms czar, told reporters that was not in the cards.

No political reform

"In Cuba there won`t be political reform," he said in a press conference at Havana`s Hotel Nacional, the international press center for the pope visit.

"In Cuba, we are talking about the update of the Cuban economic model to make our socialism sustainable," he said.

"We have studied what the whole world is doing, but we will update our socialist model with very Cuban characteristics."

Murillo`s comments were not new, but stood out in the context of Benedict`s visit.

The Pope, who arrived in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Monday and gave a public Mass there, began Tuesday at a shrine to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba`s patron saint, in the mountainside town of El Cobre.
He urged Cubans to "work for justice" as their country changes and prayed before an icon of the Virgin for "those deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones," in a clear reference to political prisoners as well as Cuban exiles.

Cuba has a history of jailing or harassing government opponents, who it views as mercenaries in the pay of the United States, its longtime ideological foe.

Castro released 130 political prisoners in a 2010 deal brokered with the Church, but dissidents say close to 50 are currently behind bars.

The Pope hopes his visit, which follows Pope John Paul II`s landmark trip in 1998, will spark a revival of religious faith in Cuba, which from 1976 to 1991 was officially atheist.
Before leaving for Rome on Wednesday, he will give a public Mass in Havana`s Revolution Square.

Cuba is marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Virgin figure, which was found floating in a bay in 1612 by three fishermen and is an important symbol for both the Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba`s slavery era. Santeros know her as Ochun, the goddess of love.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans turned out to see a nationwide pilgrimage of the doll-like icon last year.


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