POPE Francis began a ten-day trip to Cuba and the United States yesterday, embarking on his first trip to the former Cold War foes after helping to nudge forward their historic rapprochement.
He will offer a show of solidarity with Cubans and make clear that Hispanics in the US are the bedrock of the American church.
The visit will boast several firsts for history’s first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the US Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on US soil by canonising the controversial Hispanic missionary, Junipero Serra.
Francis will also be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, becoming the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years – a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a tiny Catholic community.
The Pope will join three of his predecessors in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution, while more than 100 world leaders listen in.
It is largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never visited either country and confessed that the US was so foreign to him he would spend the summer reading up on it.
His popularity ratings are high in the US but he has also gained detractors, particularly among conservatives, over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism.
That has endeared him to Cuban president Raul Castro, who vowed this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.
But Francis has also been on record criticising Cuba’s socialist – and atheist – revolution as denying individuals their “transcendent dignity”.
The visit began in Havana, where Francis was due to be greeted as something of a hero to Cubans, who rightly credit him with having helped restore diplomatic relations with the US.
Francis issued a personal appeal to presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro last year to end 50 years of animosity, and later hosted the Cuban and US delegations to finalise the deal.
“Everybody listens to him because of his prestige,” said Juana Hurtado, a 55-year-old Havana clerk. “And he may soften up some hard souls.”
Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the Holy See hopes the rapprochement will soon be followed by removal of the US embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed.
Last Friday the US eased rules for its citizens wishing to travel to Cuba and simplified procedures for telephone and internet investments and money transfers to Cuba.
However, Guzman Carriquiry, a papal aide, said Francis’s key aim in travelling to Cuba was pastoral, not political.
Francis will travel to the eastern Cuban city of Santiago to pray at the sanctuary of Cuba’s patron saint. He will also stop in the city of Holguin en route, demonstrating once again his desire to visit the most peripheral of places that often get overlooked.
Francis arrives in Washington on Tuesday, with the US leg of his trip notable for the emphasis he will place on Hispanics, who make up more than one third of the country’s Catholics.
The Pope will deliver the vast majority of his speeches in his native Spanish, even though he speaks very good English.
His canonisation of the Spanish-born Junipero Serra, who built missions across California in the 18th century, is aimed at giving today’s Latino Catholics a role model, even though Native Americans have opposed the move and argued that he helped wipe out indigenous populations.
Francis is expected to make immigration one of the major themes of the visit.
He has called for countries to be more welcoming of migrants seeking a better life for themselves, and decried in particular the plight of would-be migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.