HAVANA - Raul Castro met behind closed doors yesterday with the Vatican's number two official, in his first encounter with a foreign dignitary as Cuba's president.
The talks with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI's secretary of state, came two days after the 76-year-old Castro succeeded his older brother, Fidel, to become the first new Cuban head of state in 49 years.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice Presidents Esteban Lazo and Carlos Lage also attended the meeting. Details of the talks were not immediately released.
Bertone, whose visit marked the 10th anniversary of a visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba, said earlier yesterday that the island's leaders had assured him they would allow some Catholic broadcasts on state-controlled media.
"Authorities have promised me more openness in the print press and the radio - and in some exceptional cases, in television as well," he told the news agency of the Italian Bishops Conference, SIR. "We do hope for some openness, because nothing is impossible."
The timing of Bertone's weeklong trip, just after the 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced his resignation, was a coincidence, officials said.
After John Paul's 1998 trip, Cuban authorities released a large number of prisoners, including 99 held for political crimes. Yesterday, Bertone told SIR that in meetings with officials he did not ask directly for Cuba to release any political prisoners.
"It would look like interference," he was quoted as saying.
The cardinal has called for improving often-strained relations between Cuba's government and the local Catholic Church, and reacted warmly to official invitations for Benedict to visit the island.
Besides requests that some Catholic services and other events be aired on state television and radio, church officials on the island have long urged the government to ease bans on religious schools. But Bertone told the news agency that he "did not ask for Catholic schools, but for greater space in formation and education."
During his visit, Bertone has also called the US embargo against Cuba "ethically unacceptable."
Cuba's single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. Relations warmed more with John Paul's visit.