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Pope makes first stop in Cuba's 2nd city

Desmond Boylan / Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI and Cuba's President Raul Castro walk together after the pope's arrival in Santiago de Cuba on Monday afternoon.

SANTIAGO, Cuba – There was an air of excitement in Antonio Maceo Plaza here in this island’s second largest city as people anxiously awaited Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival Monday afternoon.

Santiago is the first stop on his three-day visit to the island. Just 12 miles outside of town, is the sanctuary of El Cobre, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden statue that is revered by all Cubans – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – and which the pope is coming to see.  

While Cuba’s communist government is ostensibly anti-religious, it is treating the papal visit like that of any other head of state. Granma, the Communist government newspaper, put Benedict’s visit on its front page Monday and every event of the visit will be televised and broadcast on state-run radio. 

Most businesses were closed here today in anticipation of the big arrival. The pope will celebrate an open-air Mass Monday evening in the plaza which thousands are expected to attend. 

Among those most excited is architect Juan Ramon Navarro, a 36-year-old father of two who designed the giant altar under which the pope will celebrate Mass.

Navarro explained that if you look at the altar from the sides, the 45-foot high arches create an "M" for the Virgin Mary. It is decorated in red, white and blue, just like the Cuban flag, and he said the canvas cover is meant to conjure up the image of Mary's skirt.

Kerry Sanders / NBC News

The open-air altar Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate mass in Santiago de Cuba on Monday.

“I am thrilled,” Navarro said about the finished product. "It's quite an honor, as you can imagine."

Battle to balance ideals
Catholic or not, many of Cuba’s 11 million citizens are hoping Benedict will push for greater economic and political freedoms on the island.

Since its 1959 revolution, which was centered here, Cuba’s Communist government has survived the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But now it is in a battle to balance its ideals – a socialist government that would care for its population from the cradle to the grave – with the realities of pressure from sanctions and an increasingly competitive world economy.

And into the breach, the church has increasingly stepped up to provide the social safety net, this despite the fact that only 10 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholics.

Government food rations here don't last the elderly an entire week. Instead, the Catholic Church now feeds and supplements medicine for the elderly.

Havana's Cardinal Jamie Ortega has also played an increasingly political role – recently he quietly helped negotiate the release of more than 100 jailed political dissidents.

Kerry Sanders / NBC News

A parishoner looks up at the the sanctuary of El Cobre, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden statue that is revered by all Cubans - Catholics and non-Catholics a

The church does not flaunt its influence in Cuba out of a fear it will offend President Raul Castro, or his brother Fidel, and in the process lose all it has gained since Pope John Paul II visited 14 years ago.

But the church does not shy away from controversy either.

Prior to his arrival this afternoon, Pope Benedict told reporters on his plane from Rome that, "it is evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality."