Vatican City — Shortly after the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected as Pope Francis in March 2013, he reached out to American president Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro to encourage open dialogue in finding a solution to free American Alan Gross.
According to the Vatican, Francis personally followed up and offered to mediate between the two countries as they held secret talks that spanned the last 18 months. The pope met with Obama in March of 2014 in Rome, during which the two leaders discussed Cuba, according to the Vatican press office.
The Vatican then hosted a final, secret discussion between the two delegations this fall in Rome. American Secretary of State John Kerry was in Rome this week to discuss an apparent request by the United States for the Vatican’s diplomatic assistance in closing Guantanamo prison. They also discussed Middle East peace.
The Pope was the only world leader, apart from Obama and Castro, involved in the talks, according to the Vatican, which said on Wednesday that it was “pleased with the announcement” that the United States would drop its policy of isolation against Cuba. According to a statement issued by the Vatican on Wednesday, “the Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."
“In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them 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,” according to the statement. “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties. The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”
Pope Francis has not visited Cuba as pontiff, but his predecessor Benedict XVI spent three days in Havana in March 2012, a year before he historically retired. That visit was brokered by Miguel Diaz, American’s Cuban-born ambassador to the Holy See, whom Obama appointed in 2009 and who left the post in 2012 after accompanying Benedict to his country of birth.
Francis, as the first Latin American pope, expressed his displeasure at the strained ties between the United States and Cuba on a number of occasions. On Wednesday, Obama thanked the pontiff for his crucial role, which, he said, “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward.” Castro also expressed gratitude. “I want to thank support from the Vatican, especially Pope Francis,” he said in a televised statement.