LEON, Mexico — He donned a sombrero and was serenaded by mariachi bands, embraced by Mexicans who called him their brother. Pope Benedict XVI has a bit of a tougher sell as he heads to a Cuba that until recently was officially atheist.
Benedict leaves behind Spanish-speaking Latin America's most Roman Catholic country Monday and arrives in its least, hoping to inspire the same outpouring of faith on the communist-run island that he did in Mexico's conservative Catholic heartland.
Benedict's first stop is Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city that is home to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden statue that is revered by Cubans, Catholic and not.
The pope will celebrate an open-air Mass Monday evening in Santiago's main plaza then pray at the sanctuary housing the statue Tuesday before heading to Havana, where he will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro — and presumably his brother Fidel.
Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will of course spark comparisons to Pope John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro shed his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana's airport and where John Paul uttered the now famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
Those comparisons were also evident in Mexico, which had claimed John Paul as its own during his five visits over a nearly 27-year pontificate. But with his first visit to Mexico, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never compare to the charisma and personal connection forged by his predecessor.
"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon who attended Benedict's Sunday Mass. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."
Benedict charmed the crowd at Mass by donning a sombrero for his popemobile tour through the estimated 350,000 people. He put on another one later Sunday night when he was serenaded by a mariachi band as he returned to the school where he has been staying.
"We saw a lot of happiness in his face. We are used to seeing him with a harder appearance, but this time he looked happier, smiling," said Esther Villegas, a 36-year-old cosmetics vendor. "A lot of people didn't care for him enough before, but now he has won us over."
The feeling was mutual.
"I've made a lot of trips, but I've never been welcomed with such enthusiasm," Benedict told a wildly cheering crowd who greeted him late Sunday. "Now I can understand why Pope John Paul II used to say, 'I feel like I'm a Mexican pope.'"
While Cubans eagerly awaited Benedict's arrival, the political overtones on the second leg of his trip were far greater than what he encountered in Mexico.
Cuba's single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations.
But problems remain. Despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools, and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
The Catholic Church, however, is now the most influential independent institution in the country, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.
In the weeks leading up to Benedict's arrival, the government cracked down on dissidents with detentions. But on Sunday, the dissident group known as the Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest outside a Havana church without incident.
The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with the dissidents. More certain but still unconfirmed is a meeting with Fidel Castro. And a new wildcard entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked Sunday about reports the pope might meet with Chavez while in Cuba. Lombardi said that as of Sunday morning, there were no such plans.
"That can change, anything can change," he told reporters. But he said the pope's delegation hadn't heard that Chavez was in Cuba until Sunday morning and that they reported having received no request for any audience.
In Mexico on Sunday, Benedict urged Mexicans to wield their faith against drug violence, poverty and other ills — a constant theme during his three days that increasingly took on political overtones a week before campaigning opens for Mexico's presidential election on July 1.
Guanajuato state remains Mexico's most conservatively Catholic, one of the few states with a government dominated by the conservative, Catholic-oriented National Action Party, which is trying to retain the presidency.
The church has repeatedly disavowed any political overtones to the pope's trip, saying the pontiff has no intention of boosting the party in power.
John Paul, however, made a point to avoid visiting countries in the throes of election campaigns, to not be seen as giving any political message. And he always made it a point to meet with opposition leaders.
Benedict eschewed the opposition meeting on this trip. President Felipe Calderon appeared with the pope on every day of the trip, and on each day the pope addressed the toll of drug cartel violence, which has killed more than 47,000 since Calderon launched a militarized offensive against the cartels at the end of 2006.Comment on this story
The pope also greeted some prominent victims of drug-cartel violence in a brief session organized by the government. Calderon's office said the pope had "met" with the victims, sending out a press release with their names. The Vatican spokesman said there was no "meeting" but merely a brief handshake and exchange of words as the pope left the government palace in Guanajuato city.
The National Action Party has suffered in recent polls, trailing the candidate of Mexico's previous ruling party by double digits, and many ascribe its poor showing to public anger over the drug violence.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield reported this story in Leon and Michael Weissenstein reported in Silao. AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Guanajuato and E. Eduardo Castillo in Leon contributed to this report.
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