September 20, 2015 at 10:14 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Pope Francis arrives in Cuba

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Pope Francis on Sept. 20, 2015, celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Pope Francis on Sunday celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square before hundreds of thousands of people.

The pontiff during his homily did not specifically mention LGBT issues. He did make a broad reference to family.

“To serve (God) means to take care of those among our families, among our society, among our people who are weak,” said Francis.

Cuban President Raúl Castro, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Cardinal Jaime Ortega of the Archdiocese of Havana were among those who attended the Mass.

Castro: U.S. embargo ‘must end’

Francis arrived in Cuba on Saturday, slightly more than a month after the U.S. marked the formal restoration of diplomatic relations with the Communist island by raising the American flag over the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Castro and President Obama last December announced they would begin the process to normalize relations between their respective countries that had been severed since 1961.

Francis in the weeks before the historic announcement personally appealed to the two heads of state to put an end to the decades of hostility. And he referenced the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. in a speech shortly after arriving at Havana’s José Martí International Airport.

“The world needs reconciliation,” said Francis.

Castro, who personally greeted Francis on the tarmac upon his arrival from Rome, blasted the U.S. embargo against his country.

“The embargo, which causes human suffering and hardships for Cuban families, is cruel, immoral and illegal,” said Castro. “It must end.”

Authorities harass, detain critics of government

Cuban officials on Sunday detained a group of dissidents before the Mass that Cubanet, an independent Cuban website, identified as members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba who oppose the Castro government.

Univision broadcast a video that appears to show Francis blessing a man before security personnel abruptly pull him away from his Popemobile as it entered Revolution Square.

The man threw papers into the air as a plainclothes Cuban security official pulled him away from the crowd.

The Univision video also shows the officials pulling him, another man and a woman to the ground. They then led the three dissidents away from the square as several men picked up the flyers that had been thrown onto the ground.

A source identified the three members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba who were detained as Zaqueo Báez Guerrero, Ismael Boris Reñí and Aymara Nieto Muñoz. The source noted that María Josefa Acón Sardiñas, a member of the Ladies in White, an opposition group that holds weekly demonstrations in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, was also taken into custody for several hours on Sunday.

Marino López Borell, a member of the Shui Tuix Project, a Havana-based independent LGBT advocacy group, was among those who attended the Mass.

He told the Washington Blade he heard many people who were waiting at a bus station with him early in the morning say they “were practically forced to go.” López said many of these people said their employers would have punished them, cut their salaries or given them bad references if they did not attend the Mass.

López told the Blade he was planning to attend the Mass with a member of the Ladies in White who is his neighbor.

“The streets on each corner since we left the house were full of police and security agents,” said López.

López told the Blade that several police officers stopped him and his neighbor about four blocks from Revolution Square.

He said the authorities detained his neighbor, even though they did not have “any poster or symbols that identified us as opponents of the government.” López — who said he only had two small Cuban and Vatican flags with him — told the Blade the police told him to “leave or to keep calm if he did not want to go to the same place” as his neighbor.

López said they allowed him to attend the Mass.

“I very much liked the pope’s attitude, as it was very affectionate,” he told the Blade. “He greeted everyone who was present from his Popemobile and the crowd became excited.”

López told the Blade that a friend told him that his mother, who is a member of the Ladies in White, “disappeared” four days ago and he “has not heard anything from her.”

“[The dissidents who approached Francis] were very brave for doing it,” said López.

Maykel González Vivero, a gay blogger in the city of Sagua la Grande who is a member of the Rainbow Project, an independent LGBT advocacy, told the Blade on Sunday in an email that it is commonplace for Cuban authorities to arrest dissidents ahead of high-profile events.

“They take place, including preventative arrests,” said González.

People ‘don’t care’ about papal visit

Francis on Sunday met with former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Media reports indicate that the pontiff has no plans to meet with dissidents while on the Communist island.

“It is unfortunate that the pope has not decided to take a few minutes while in Cuba to meet with human rights defenders,” González told the Blade.

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Maykel González Vivero, an independent LGBT rights advocate, speaks with the Washington Blade in his apartment in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, on May 17, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Ernesto Vera Rodríguez, a lawyer and independent LGBT rights advocate who lives in the city of Santiago de Cuba, was equally as critical of Francis.

“People don’t care,” Vera told the Blade, referring to the pope’s trip to Cuba. “He has not even condemned the repression that takes place in Cuba.”

Francis is scheduled to travel to Holguín and Santiago de Cuba before flying to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Tuesday. The pontiff will visit D.C., New York and Philadelphia before returning to Rome on Sept. 28.

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St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Northwest D.C. welcomes Pope Francis to the nation’s capital. The pontiff is scheduled to visit the church this week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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