Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET
Pope Francis arrived in Havana to enthusiastic crowds, beginning a 10-day papal visit first to Cuba and then to the United States, where he will meet with President Obama, address a joint meeting of Congress in Washington and speak before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The pope was met on the tarmac by President Raul Castro and the two shook hands. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino also greeted the pontiff and then Francis spoke briefly with a group of children. Crowds of people looked on, waving flags of Cuba and the Vatican.
In a speech at the airport, Castro recalled his "memorable" meeting with Francis at the Vatican in May and praised the pontiff's vision of social justice and his raising concerns over climate change.
"We followed very closely your work," Castro said. "We see a clear echo in the world of your analysis and your [desire] to preserve the planet and our species."
Castro also saw common ground with the pope in that "the present international [financial] system is immoral."
He also took the opportunity to score points against the U.S., calling for an end to sanctions and demanding the return of Guantanamo.
The pope, speaking in Spanish, thanked his hosts and asked Castro to "convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother, Fidel."
Francis, who is credited with helping nudge the two nations toward a rapprochement, said the gradually warming relations between Havana and Washington "fills us with hope ... after years of estrangement."
In Cuba, Francis will meet privately with President Castro, who, like his brother and longtime leader Fidel, was baptized as a Catholic and educated by Jesuits.
Osmany Lopez, a 63-year-old plumber who lives in Havana, was quoted by Reuters as saying he planned to be on the streets of the capital to greet Francis's motorcade from the airport.
"We all want to say thank you so much Francis for helping us end this absurd situation we have endured for so long," Lopez said, referring to the relaxation of U.S. sanctions first imposed on Cuba during the Cold War.
Pope John Paul II visited the predominately Catholic island nation in 1998 and Pope Benedict XVI was there in 2012.
As The Associated Press notes, Francis' visit "boasts several firsts for history's first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on U.S. soil by canonizing the controversial (and Hispanic) missionary, Junipero Serra."
"Francis though will also be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, becoming the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years — a remarkable record for any country much less one with such a tiny Catholic community. And he will join three of his predecessors in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution while over 100 world leaders listen in."
The Miami Herald writes:
"The Argentina-born pontiff ... comes to the island at a time when many Cubans are thirsting for a message of hope and searching for a way forward. That the first Latin American pope will be speaking to them in their native language could make his message even more powerful.
"In a short 'fraternal' greeting televised Thursday night in Cuba, Francis said he would visit the Cuban people to 'share the faith and hope.' The pope said he had a very simple message for them: 'Jesus loves you very much, Jesus sincerely loves you; he always carries you in his heart. . . . He never abandons us.'"