Pope Francis arrived in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, where he will visit a few days before coming to the United States on Tuesday. File Photo by Stefano Spaziari/UPI | License Photo
HAVANA, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- While visiting Cuba on Saturday, Pope Francis commended the restoration of diplomatic relations and easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba, calling it "an example of reconciliation for the whole world."
The pope met with President Raul Castro upon his arrival in Cuba's capital, but quickly offered only a thinly veiled critique of the communist nation.
In a brief speech, the pope called on the Cuban government to give its people the "freedom, the means and the space" to practice religion. The pope also cited the long history of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
In 1998, prior to his pontification, Francis published a memoir in which he called on Cuba and Castro's regime to end its "corrupt" and "authoritarian" rule, advocating for a transition to democracy. And in his comments to reporters on Saturday, the pope used the word "freedom" several times.
Raul, unfazed by any critique, praised the pope for his work in addressing global warming and poverty.
Pope Francis was greeted by thousands of Cuban well-wishers, who lined the edges of the roads leading from the Jose Marti International airport to the home of the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba.
He will remain in Cuba four days, before flying to the U.S. next week.
In a press release, the White House confirmed that President Barack Obama and Castro spoke on the phone, each crediting the pope with encouraging the normalization between the two countries.
"The leaders discussed steps that the United States and Cuba can take," the White House wrote, "together and individually, to advance bilateral cooperation, even as we will continue to have differences on important issues and will address those differences candidly."