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Cuba's new President Raul Castro meeting with Vatican Secretary of State.
The former defense chief, who took over from his brother Fidel Castro on Sunday, shed his traditional military garb as he wore a blue business suit, white shirt and tie for his meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Tarciscio Bertone at the Palace of the Revolution.

The two men "reviewed the status of relations between the Cuban state and the Holy and the Catholic Church in Cuba (and) discussed issues of multilateral and international interest," Cuban television said about the meeting.

The meeting followed calls by the Vatican for reform. Cuban dissidents have urged Cardinal Bertone to call on the new president to release political prisoners.

Bertone, 73, earlier Wednesday said he expected "clarity" and "sincerity" in his talks with the new leader.

"I have come here at a special, extraordinary moment," he told a joint news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

Bertone hailed as "positive" Havana's recent freeing of certain prisoners, but said he had not called for amnesties.

In a separate meeting with Catholic reporters, Bertone said Cuban officials had promised him "more openness for the press, the radio and, in exceptional cases, the television as well," according to Italy's Catholic news agency Sir.

"Everything starts with a promise," Bertone was quoted as saying by the agency, "but we hope there'll be an opening, because nothing is impossible."

In a sign that press restrictions may be easing, the official newspaper Granma published Tuesday for the first time ever a statement from Cuba's Catholic Church -- on the parliament's election of Raul Castro on Sunday.

They said they were praying the new president and parliament would "move forward decisively these transcendent measures that we know must be gradual, but which can satisfy the longing and worries expressed by Cubans."

Cuban television also covered a Bertone press conference from start to finish.

Bertone's visit marks the 10th anniversary of a historic visit to Cuba by the late pope, John Paul II.

Castro, 76, Cuba's highest-ranking general and chief of the country's Revolutionary Armed Forces for nearly 50 years, took over after his 81-year-old brother announced last week he would step down due to poor health.

Known as a pragmatist with solid backing from the powerful military, Raul Castro promised to stay faithful to the Cuban revolution and to consult his brother on major issues. And he said he would remain vigilant in the face of Cuba's powerful northern neighbor the United States.

National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon, 70, said Tuesday Raul's election was "a moment of great historical importance," because the Cuban people sent "a strong message of unity" to nay-sayers like the United States.

He said in a television interview, "there's a combination of generations that is assuring the continuity of the revolution. And, something very important, the founder of the revolution (Fidel Castro) is still present."

Cuba was facing "a new period of challenges," Alarcon said, adding that among the measures the new leadership would undertake was "restructuring the central government, ministries and central state organisms to improve their efficiency."

The US administration said Monday it would maintain its decades-long embargo on Cuba, adding there was no realistic hope of genuine reform given the lingering presence of hardline communist figures.

The European Union also said it was willing to engage in a "constructive political dialogue" with Raul Castro.


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