Cuban leaders are prepared to show Pope Francis their ‘warmest hospitality’

 havana-live-pope-francisHAVANA, April 27 (BY ALBOR RUI)Z One thing is certain about Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in September: He is going to be welcomed with open arms.

“He will receive the warmest hospitality of the Cuban people,” the island’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, said on Wednesday.

It couldn’t be any other way. After all, Francis played a pivotal role in creating the conditions for a new relationship between Cuba and the United States, after more than half a century of enmity and distrust.

His visit to the island before heading for the U.S will come at a time of unprecedented change and hope for the Cuban people and is sure to give a boost to the conversations between the two nations. As Rodríguez Parrilla said, Francis’ visit will be “memorable.”

“This Pope has worked to make reconciliation possible. The fact that he is going to Cuba before traveling to the U.S. is significant,” said Julio Ruiz, a Cuban-American geriatric psychiatrist and a proponent of a more rational U.S.-Cuba policy.

Francis will be the third pope to visit Cuba in less than 20 years, something that Ruiz, who defines himself as non-religious, says is “almost a miracle.”

In 1998 John Paul II became the first pontiff to travel to the island, and in 2012 Benedict XVI also made the journey.

“John Paul’s visit happened during a very difficult period and he gave us Catholics much hope,” said Romy Arangüiz, a Cuban-American doctor who lived in Cuba until 2002 and travels often to the island. “It brought many positive changes for the church.”

Yet, Arangüiz believes that Francis’ visit will be even more significant, not only because he is Latin-American and understands Cuba and the problems and aspirations of its people in a way that neither the Polish John Paul or the German Benedict were able to, but also because he is a different kind of leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

“I admire him very much, he is much more humble than any other pope, he is closer to the poor and the powerless,” said Arangüiz, who says she wants to be in Cuba for Francis’ visit.

Sixteen years have gone by since the first papal visit to the island and Francisco will find a much different Cuba from the one John Paul said good-bye to with a ringing condemnation of the embargo.

Although the embargo is still in place, Havana and Washington are finally making strides toward normalizing relations.

“Francis will address Congress and it will be a great opportunity for him to advocate for the embargo to be lifted,” Ruiz said.

And if it happens, that would be a real miracle.