ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE Pope Benedict said on Friday communism no longer works in Cuba and the Church was ready to help the island find new ways of moving forward without "trauma".
Speaking on the plane taking him from Rome for a trip to Mexico and Cuba starting on Friday, the pope told reporters: "Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality."
Responding to a question about his visit to the island, a communist bastion 90 miles (145 km) off the coast of the United States for more than 50 years, Benedict added: "In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way."
Benedict offered the help of the Church in achieving a peaceful transition on the island saying the process required patience but also "much decisiveness."
"We want to help in a spirit dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world."
The word "trauma" has been used previously by members of the Roman Catholic church to refer to what may happen in Cuba, particularly after the death of ailing revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, 85, who handed over power to his brother Raul in 2008.
Benedict said the historic 1998 visit to Cuba of his predecessor, Pope John Paul "opened up a path of collaboration and constructive dialogue, a road that is long and calls for patience but moves forward."
John Paul's visit accelerated a process of reconciliation between the Church and Cuba's communist rulers who were at odds for many years following the 1959 Cuban revolution.
The Cuban Church and government are still in dispute over issues such as Church use of the media and religious education.
Asked about whether he should defend human rights in Cuba, the pope replied: "It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom, on the side of freedom of conscience, of freedom of religion, and we contribute in this sense."
On Monday, Cuba released 70 members of the dissident Ladies in White group detained during the weekend but warned them not to attend activities related to the pope visit.
The women, known in Spanish as the "Damas de Blanco," were freed without charges after being arrested in three separate incidents on Saturday and Sunday when they attempted to march in Havana.
There are no meetings with Cuban dissidents on the pope's programme.
Last week the Vatican re-stated its condemnation of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, calling it useless and something that hurts ordinary people.
The embargo, which marked its 50th anniversary last month and which Cubans call "the blockade", is still the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean island 90 miles (145 km) from Florida, although it has failed to meet its primary objective of undermining Castro's communist government.
Washington imposed the near-total trade embargo at the height of the Cold War to punish Havana for its support of the Soviet Union and in the hope it would bring an end to communism.
One unanswered question about the trip is whether Benedict will meet Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before his younger brother Raul succeeded him in 2008.
The Vatican has said the pope will be "available" if the elder, ailing Fidel Castro wants to meets him.
(Writing by Barry Moody)