Papal visit gives Cuba's 2nd city a day in the sun

March 26, 2012 - 9:36 PM
Cuba Pope

A man wears a neckerchief that reads in Spanish "Welcome Pope Benedict XVI" in front of a billboard with an image of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro that reads in Spanish "Santiago, yesterday rebel, today hospitable, always heroic" in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Sunday, March, 25, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI will arrive to Cuba on Monday. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) — This sun-scorched city is accustomed to playing second fiddle to Havana at the other end of Cuba. On Monday, though, Santiago came first as Pope Benedict XVI arrived, bringing the world's gaze with him.

Authorities raised huge steel arches in the shape of a papal miter above a blue-and-white altar where Benedict celebrated Mass on Monday and urged residents of this communist-run country to seek salvation in faith.

Roman Catholic youth held a prayer vigil Sunday night to celebrate the pontiff's arrival, and workers buzzed about Revolution Square putting final touches on the stage, testing power cables and setting out chairs under the direction of priests. Some people hung welcome posters for the pope in their windows.

"As a Santiagan, I am very proud to be able to receive him with joy," said 35-year-old Luzmilka Barza. Although she described herself as only "a little bit Catholic," she said that "it will be something that moves us all for a person such as him to visit."

Cuba's second city has been overshadowed by the more-storied Havana ever since the Spaniards moved the colonial capital there, even though Santiago is considered the cradle of the revolution and was an intellectual and artistic center long before Fidel and Raul Castro were born.

Fidel Castro proclaimed the triumph of his 1959 revolution from the balcony of Santiago's city hall on Jan. 1, 1959, but promptly set out for the capital to claim power. Havana now dominates Cuban industry and politics and occupies a singular space in the imaginations of people around the world, even those who have never strolled its famed seafront.

Pope John Paul II visited Santiago 14 years ago, but he began and ended his Cuban journey in Havana.

While Cuba is Latin America's least Roman Catholic country, the faithful in Santiago eagerly awaited the arrival of the city's most prominent visitor since the last time a pontiff came calling.

"I hope that after this visit the Cuban people have more faith," said an emotional Mayra Corona, 63, who along with a dozen other people worked for weeks readying the ornaments, vestments and sacred utensils to be used by priests during the Mass.

Benedict will bring "peace, tranquility, forgiveness," she said.

The pope chose Santiago as his first stop because of the nearby sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, dedicated to Cuba's patron saint. Benedict has cited the 400th anniversary of the icon's discovery as the main reason for his trip to the island.

Cuban authorities gave the sanctuary a $236,000 makeover of everything from its drainage system to the stained glass. Workers even built a humble but air-conditioned house where the pope planned to spend the night. It is made with reinforced concrete designed to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake.

But most of the action ahead of the pope's visit centered on Revolution Square, which Catholic Church officials said could hold as many as 100,000 people.

The pope's backdrop there was a a 50-foot (16-meter) statue of independence hero Antonio Maceo on horseback, arm outstretched as if beckoning his countrymen to follow him to battle. Twenty-three rust-colored machetes spiked into the air commemorating the 23rd of March, 1878, an important date in Cuba's struggle to break free from Spanish colonial rule.

Havana at the western end of Cuba also was busy sprucing up to host Benedict after he leaves Santiago on Tuesday.

A huge altar on the capital's own Revolution Square is finished, and workers have been making eleventh-hour touch-ups to deteriorating streets. Prominent avenues were resurfaced, and potholes filled. Workers repainted faded curbs, and many streets got fresh striping over the weekend.

Authorities put on a show of lights, music and slides projected onto the facade of the cathedral in colonial Old Havana on Sunday evening. They also took down the scaffolding that for months shrouded a Christ statue overlooking the bay.

Officials say 797 journalists for 295 media outlets in 33 countries have been granted visas to cover the visit.

"It is a great privilege to have the pope visit us," said Graciela Hernandez, a 59-year-old retiree in the capital. "For me, as a Catholic, it's something that moves me, and the most important thing is that the pope comes with a message of love, peace and brotherhood."

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Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP