President Raul Castro warmly greeted the pope, who said he was coming as "a pilgrim of charity" as he arrived at the sweltering airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.
The pontiff, who last week said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a more gentle tweak to his hosts by expressing sympathy for all islanders, including prisoners.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious liberty and has good relations with all religious institutions. He also criticized the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said, adding that his country remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most forceful power that history has ever known" -- a reference to the United States -- to thwart the island's socialist model.
Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
In his remarks 14 years ago, John Paul singled out Cuban prisoners jailed for their ideas, something Benedict did not do in Monday's speech.
Cuba has released dozens of political prisoners in recent years, often through agreements with the church, and denies it holds any now. Officials refer to dissidents as mercenaries in the sway of its U.S. enemies. Human rights groups say some Cubans remain jailed for their political activities and note that harassment and brief detentions of dissidents is on the rise. Some island dissidents said Monday they were being kept from attending the Santiago Mass, a charge that could not immediately be verified.
Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the 84-year-old pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba's tightly controlled arrival ceremony, which took place on the tarmac in steamy, 88-degree Fahrenheit (31-degree Celsius) weather.
Flag-waving well-wishers lined the streets leading from the airport into town as Benedict rode past in the glass-walled popemobile, though the numbers were nothing like those seen in Mexico.
Later, the pope was to rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.
Benedict will only be in Cuba for a little over 48 hours, and his limited schedule is sure to disappoint many who want a piece of his attention, from the dissident community, to practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith, to returning Cuban American exiles and even representatives of imprisoned U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross.
The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with any of them, citing his advanced age and need for rest. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as "El Comandante."
A new wild card entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked whether the pope might meet with Chavez and said that as of Sunday, there were no such plans.
Benedict has demonstrated an ability to surprise during his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America.
In Mexico, which remains devoted to John Paul, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff whose appeal can't compete with his predecessor's. Some 350,000 people welcomed him warmly at a Mass on Sunday and he delighted the crowd by briefly donning a Mexican sombrero before the ceremony.
The reception was inevitably less fervent in Cuba, where only about 10 percent of the people are practicing Catholics.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations, and today the church is the most influential independent institution in Cuba. Magazines it operates have published frank articles calling for change.
But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
Lack of enthusiasm for the Church predates the 1959 Cuban Revolution. From the early years under Spanish colonial rule, Catholicism was the religion of the ruling elite while believers of Afro-Cuban faiths were forced to hide their ceremonies and mask their deities behind Catholic saints.
The government is helping bring out crowds during Benedict's visit by offering special transportation and giving residents a paid day off to attend the Mass in Santiago, and another on Wednesday in the capital.
The political overtones of the Cuba leg are more pronounced than they were in Mexico.
Benedict has been sharply critical of socialism in the past, and when he began his journey to the Americas last week, he told reporters it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality."
In his speech Monday, Benedict balanced that by criticizing capitalism for leaving "humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Paul Haven in Havana contributed to this report.