Pope Francis landed in Havana on Saturday, the first of his 9-day visit to Cuba and the United States, telling officials that the recent normalization of relations between the two countries is a sign of hope and victory. “For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” the Pope said Sept. 19, after landing in the Cuban capital of Havana. Quoting Cuban hero and tireless fighter for the country’s independence, José Martí, Francis said the restoration of ties “is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.’” He urged political leaders continue down this path and to “develop all its potentialities” as a sign of the service they are called to on behalf of the “peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.” Pope Francis landed in Havana’s International José Marti airport at 4p.m. local time, where he was greeted in an official welcoming ceremony by Cuban president Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana, among others. Pope Francis will spend three days on the island before heading to the United States the afternoon of Sept. 22, where he will address the United Nations, U.S. Congress, and participate in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. While in Cuba, Pope Francis will meet with the country’s bishops, families, and youth, and will pay a special visit to Santiago’s shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba. In addition to meeting with Cuban president Raul Castro and the country’s authorities, Francis will likely also meet with former president and elder brother to Raul, Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba’s communist revolution. Francis offered a special greeting to Fidel when he landed, telling Raul in his speech to “convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel.” Pope Francis said that as an archipelago facing all directions, Cuba has “an extraordinary value as a key between north and south, east and west.” The country's natural vocation, then, “is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship.” He noted that 2015 marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Republic of Cuba and the Holy See, and said that providence has allowed him to follow in the footsteps of both St. John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012, in visiting the nation. “Today we renew those bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society,” he said. Pope Francis also observed how his trip coincides with the centenary of Benedict XV’s declaration of our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as Patroness of Cuba. It was the veterans of the Cuban War of Independence who, “moved by sentiments of faith and patriotism,” wrote a letter to Benedict XV officially asking him to declare her patroness of the country. Growing devotion to the Virgin of Cobre “is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people,” he said, explaining that he will visit her shrine as “a son and pilgrim,” in order to pray for Cuba and all its people, “that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation.” Pope Francis concluded his address by entrusting his visit to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, as well as Blessed Olallo Valdés, Blessed José López Pietreira and Venerable Félix Varela, all of whom are Cubans on the path to sainthood. Francis has played a key role in normalizing relations between the Cuba and the United States, who on Dec. 17, 2014 announced a prisoner exchange as well as a historic shift in their relationship, which for decades has been marked by an embargo and lack of formal diplomatic relations. Official ties between the two countries were severed in 1961, shortly after the communist revolution, a diplomatic gulf widened by an embargo on travel and trade. However, the Obama administration had made small changes to existing policy starting in 2009, including Cuban-Americans having a limited freedom to travel between the countries and send money to Cuba. In 2013, secret talks between diplomats began to open up relations, aided by the support of the Vatican. Pope Francis made a personal to both U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro to come to a deal, particularly regarding diplomacy and long-held prisoners. Full diplomatic relations were officially restored as of midnight July 20, and embassies were re-opened and flags raised later in the day as an outward sign of the diplomatic thaw.
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