By PETER ORSI, Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba will listen with respect to Pope Benedict XVI during his visit next week even if he differs with island leaders, the country's foreign minister said Friday after the pontiff described Marxism as out of step with the times.
Benedict made the comment to reporters during his long flight to Mexico, the first stop in his six-day tour. While it was in keeping with the Vatican's position, it was an unexpectedly blunt statement to come just days before he will be on Cuban soil.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez avoided any clash over the statement.
"We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Our people have deep convictions developed over the course of our history," Rodriguez said at a news conference. "Cuba will listen with all respect to his holiness."
He added that the Cuban system "is a democratic social project, genuinely chosen, which is constantly perfecting itself."
Benedict said it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality," and exhorted Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."
Asked about reports of harassment and detention of dissidents on the island, Benedict said the church wants "to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society."
Benedict's comments were as bold as any his predecessor, John Paul II, made during his historic 1998 tour of Cuba. But they stopped short of directly challenging the country's single-party political model, which has been in place for five decades. Benedict arrives Monday in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
Robert A. Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and former national security adviser for Latin America during the Carter administration, said Benedict's words seemed calculated to initiate a dialogue about political change while giving the Cubans space to maneuver by underscoring the importance of gradualism.
"He placed himself on the side of freedom, but not necessarily in a manner that would put the Cuban regime on the defensive," Pastor said. "They will not be excited by this. They won't be happy with it. But I think they have to be realistic enough to understand that the pope could say nothing less."
President Raul Castro has initiated a slate of economic reforms in recent years permitting more private-sector activity on the communist-run island where the state has long controlled nearly the entire economy.
Many Cubans have opened small businesses and are farming previously state-held land. It is now legal for all islanders to buy and sell homes and cars.
Benedict made even stronger remarks during his first visit to Latin America, a 2007 trip to Brazil.
"The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit," the pope said then.
He has also been critical of unrestrained capitalism and globalization.
Rodriguez emphasized areas of common ground between Havana and the Vatican, such as opposition to "the oppression of finances, opposition to treatment of human beings as if they were animals of consumption."
"The most important message to get from this exchange is that it's good that the pope is going," Pastor said. "And it's good that he's doing so in a manner that gives the Cuban regime some room to change instead of be defiant."
Reaction to Benedict's comments in South Florida, where some Cuban-Americans have criticized the pontiff's trip, was mixed.
"I'm very optimistic that the Pope's words and actions will have a great impact on the Cuban people that will lead to political change," said Andy S. Gomez, a senior fellow at the University at Miami's Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, who is traveling to Cuba as part of a church delegation. Gomez came from Cuba to the U.S. in 1954 at age 6.
Former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and staunch opponent of the Cuban government, said he would reserve judgment about the pope's visit for now, but criticized the role of the Roman Catholic Church has played in Cuba. Last week, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega asked state security to remove 13 dissidents from a church they had occupied to press Benedict to raise their complaints with the Cuban government.
Diaz-Balart said the pope should meet with representatives of the island's small but vocal dissident community — something that Benedict does not plan to do.
"This pope is not visiting the Cuba that John Paul II visited," Diaz-Balart said. "There's much more opposition. There's a new generation of leadership, a new generation of leaders in every municipality of Cuba, and they have to be acknowledged."
Cuban officials said 797 journalists from 295 media outlets in 33 nations were issued visas to cover the 84-year-old pope's visit, which is to include a meeting with Raul and possibly Fidel Castro.
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.
Follow Peter Orsi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Peter(underscore)Orsi.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.