A top Cuban official has said there are no prospects for political change on the communist-run island, despite Pope Benedict XVI's appeals for "renewal" and "a better society".
Marino Murillo, a vice-president on President Raul Castro's council of ministers who is overseeing political reforms, said on Tuesday that while the country was shaking up its economy, "in Cuba there will not be political reform".
Murillo's comments to a room full of journalists covering the papal visit were a quick and categorical response to comments by Benedict earlier in the day, when he made a highly symbolic prayer visit to the shrine of the nation's patron saint.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said at the sanctuary in the village of El Cobre.
"I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
On the second day of his Cuban tour, the pontiff met President Raul Castro, and asked that Cuba declare Good Friday - commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus - a national holiday, according to papal spokesman Federico Lombardi.
Former leader Fidel Castro, Raul's older brother, reinstated Christmas as a holiday when Pope John Paul visited the island in 1998.
Fidel said in an online article that he would "gladly" meet the pope on Wednesday.
"I will gladly meet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI ... as I did John Paul II," the 85-year-old former president wrote in an article published on the official Cubadetabe website.
|Pope Benedict XVI gestures to believers after visiting the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre [Reuters]
In El Cobre, the pope knelt silently before the Virgin of Charity of Cobre for several minutes, his eyes open and hands clasped.
In subtle ways, the pope has acknowledged a lack of faith in what is one of South America's least Catholic countries, and tried to make his trip appealing to potential believers.
Dunia Felipillo, 45, said she was proud to see the pope praying before the Virgin of Charity, even though she herself was not Catholic.
"We all ask favours of La Cachita,'' she said, using the Cuban slang for the Virgin, as she watched the ceremony on TV from the lobby of a Santiago hotel.
Benedict's frequent references to the Virgin are also a way of hitting on something the church shares with Cuba's non-religious leaders and his wider audience, in contrast to the church's positions on divorce and abortion, not to mention his past strong comments against Marxism.
While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 per cent practice the faith.
"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith ... that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," he said Monday at a Mass in the nearby city of Santiago.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Havana undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, did not ask for an audience with the pope but would be welcome to attend Mass in the capital's Revolution Square on Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman said.