The Pope: A Key Actor in the Re-Establishment of Cuba-US Relations

By Daniel Garcia Marco and Isaac Risco (dpa)

Pope Francis

HAVANA TIMES — The rapprochement between Washington and Havana was facilitated by the Vatican. Both Barack Obama and Raul Castro underscored the fundamental role that Pope Francis, who is becoming an international political actor beyond his duties as the leader of the Catholic Church, played as mediator in negotiations.

Tolerant of and open towards the issue of homosexuality and determined to deal with child abuse with a firm hand, the Argentine-born Pope seems intent on doing something beyond the confines of Saint Peter Square.

“In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is,” said Obama during an address announcing that the United States and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations, after fifty years of ideological confrontations.

“I want to express my gratitude towards and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, particularly Pope Francis, for the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States,” Cuban President Raul Castro stated.

The Pope and Canada were the mediators of the secret talks held between the two countries for months, talks which involved a meeting at the Vatican in October.

Pope Francis turned 78 today and received the restored relations he helped re-establish as gift. “His Holiness wants to express his warmest congratulations for this historical decision,” declared the Vatican in a communiqué.

The Pope had written Obama and Castro over the past few months, “inviting them to resolve humanitarian issues of common interest, like the situation of some prisoners, in order to start a new phase of relations between the two parties,” the Vatican reported.

The mediation of Jorge Bergoglio in the conflicto between the two countries is not the first we have seen in the international arena. Bergoglio was also involved in negotiations in the Middle East and managed to organize a meeting between the Palestinian president and Israeli leader, where they all prayed for peace (albeit without any concrete political results).

He seems to have been more successful in a matter that is closer to the first Latin American Pope.

Relations between Cuba’s communist government and the Catholic Church have progressively improved in recent years.

In 1996, Fidel Castro visited the Vatican and, two years later, Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to the island, where he asked for an end to the economic and commercial blockade that the United States imposes on Cuba and is maintained despite the measures announced by Obama yesterday. Only the US Congress can lift the blockade.

The Catholic Church has been gaining ground on the island since Raul Castro took office in 2006. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 had signaled the reemergence of the Catholic faith on the island, after decades of hostility from the Castro government, and Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2012 allowed the Catholic Church to consolidate its role as a political actor, something which prompted as much criticism as it did praise.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has a good relationship with Havana’s Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who impelled an unheard-of exchange between the Church and government in recent years. The mediation of the Church led to the release of more than a hundred political prisoners in 2010 and helped the institution gain influence among the island’s public.

In April of 2012, Cuba, a country that declared itself atheist for decades after the triumph of the revolution, celebrated a Good Friday for the first time in 50 years.

In a country where all media are in the hands of the State, intellectual circles surrounding the Archbishop of Havana have been able to create publications that constitute an alternative source of opinion.

Pope Francis is scheduled to travel to the United States in September of next year. In addition to participating at the World Meeting of Families, he is expected at the UN headquarters in New York and in Washington, where he is to speak before a Congress in which most Republicans oppose any rapprochement with Cuba.

It is expected to be much more than a pastoral visit, as befits the new, politically active Pope.