ARUN RATH, HOST:
Cubans welcomed Pope Francis this evening as he arrived in Havana for a tour across the island nation. In a brief speech just after his arrival, Francis spoke encouragingly about the warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Here he is via interpreter on CNN.
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POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) We have been witnessing an event which fills us up with hope - the process of normalizing relations between two peoples after many years of estrangement.
RATH: The church's first Latin-American pope has impressed a lot of Cubans, including President Raul Castro. And many are hoping Pope Francis might use his influence to push for greater freedom in the Communist nation. Earlier, I spoke with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Havana about how Cubans have been preparing for the visit by the pope.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Well, I'm sitting right now in the plaza of the revolution where tomorrow it will be the giant rally and the big mass that the pope will give to the Cuban people. This is an iconic plaza of the revolution. I'm standing in front of just the hugest statue of Che Guevara, and there's other monuments to revolutionary leaders here. But they're still preparing. It's clearly not ready yet. There's people sweeping, there's people still painting and unpacking chairs. So they have a little bit more to do to prepare for the pope coming here tomorrow for the giant mass.
RATH: So tell us what's on the pope's agenda. Who's he meeting with?
KAHN: Like I said, he will give this huge mass in this grand plaza here in the morning. And then he'll go to a cultural center, which sits right next to the Grand Cathedral in Old Havana, right on the waterfront. It's an amazing old colonial building. He will be entertained by a youth group, and there will be a performance and also meet with young Cubans. He will not be meeting with dissidents, however, on the island, and I spoke to a leader of the dissidents here today. And he - I said, how do you feel that? Are you unhappy or disappointed? And he said, well, look, if he doesn't meet meet with us, I can understand that. But we do hope that he addresses the reality of the situation here in Cuba today. And he described deplorable human rights situation and the closed economy and state-run economy. He said if the pope doesn't do that and didn't meet with us, then they would be disappointed.
RATH: Now, the last pope to visit Cuba was noted anti-Communist John Paul II, back in 1988. How have relations between the Catholic community and the Communist government there changed since then?
KAHN: In a word, much better. They're definitely much better than when John Paul II came here. That was a watershed moment, very historical meeting. For example, after John Paul left, Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday, so relations are much better now, but they're still tense. This is a Communist nation. It is a small Catholic community, but they have been able to find a space here over the years, especially as the economic situation has deteriorated in Cuba. The Catholic Church has moved in, and they help the poor, they help old people, they help young people, they have more activities for those groups. So you do see more of a space for the Catholic Church, but it's still not as open as it was pre-revolution.
RATH: NPR's Carrie Kahn at Revolution Plaza in Havana. Carrie, thanks very much.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.