"They fixed the highway, the roads, they painted our houses and they gave the vendors new kiosks," said Santiago resident Armando Sotres. "We are thankful to the pope for all of this."
Benedict's arrival comes 14 years after his predecessor, John Paul II, made the first voyage by a pontiff to the communist-ruled island, and the current occupant of St. Peter's chair made note of that historic opening. He said John Paul, who met and sparred with then-leader Fidel Castro, left an "indelible mark" that brought a "gentle breath of fresh air" that "gave new strength" to the Catholic Church in Cuba.
"One of the important fruits of that visit was the inauguration of a new phase in the relationship in Cuba between church and state, in a new spirit of cooperation and trust, even if many areas remain in which greater progress can and ought to be made," Benedict said.
In the first decades after the 1959 revolution, priests and seminarians were relegated to forced-labor camps, church property was confiscated and the openly religious were denied government jobs. But from the 1990s on, the government has eased those restrictions and the church has become an important voice.
Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, continues to Havana on Tuesday.
"I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons," Benedict said.
Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Leon, Mexico, contributed to this report.