Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Much Does US-Cuba Thaw Owe to Pope Francis?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Much Does US-Cuba Thaw Owe to Pope Francis?

Article excerpt

For a man who desires nothing from the material world, it was perhaps the perfect birthday present.

Shortly after Pope Francis blew out the candles on a cake presented to him in St Peter's Square for his 78th birthday, it emerged that he had something else to celebrate - the crucial role he and the Vatican played in the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.

The Vatican hosted secret talks between Cuban and American officials in October. And Pope Francis - the first Latin American pontiff in history - personally sent letters to President Barack Obama and Raul Castro, the Cuban president, urging them to end their 50-year history of enmity and distrust. The Holy See's role also involved pushing for the release of Alan Gross, the American contractor who had been in jail for five years after being accused of spying by the Cubans.

Announcing the thawing of relations between the two countries, Mr. Obama said he wanted to "in particular" thank the pope. The president praised his "moral example, showing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is."

In a statement released shortly after, the Vatican confirmed the role played by the pope, saying he had invited the two sides "to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties."

It was a huge diplomatic coup for the Holy See. But as the back- room details of the months of negotiations emerged Thursday, Vatican insiders said that not only Pope Francis deserved credit for the dramatic thawing of relations. They said the Jesuit pope had built on years of quiet Vatican diplomacy and on the efforts of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, both of whom visited Cuba during their tenures.

"The deal reached between Havana and Washington has to be seen in the context of a long process," says a senior Vatican insider. …

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