The White House has credited Pope Francis with being an important catalyst to the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States.
On Wednesday, President Obama instructed the Secretary of State to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which includes re-establishing an embassy in Havana.
Wednesday’s news is the result of a year and a half of negotiations between the two countries, personally facilitated by Pope Francis.
In the course of a 15-minute speech, President Obama said: “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”
According to a White House official, the private letters that the Pope sent to Obama and Castro this past summer “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward.” The Vatican was the only external government that participated in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Vatican officials were “in those meetings,” the official said.
The negotiations, which ran over the last 18 months, took place primarily in Canada, but the final deal was worked out at the Vatican and personally attended by Francis, who an administration official noted was “the first pope to be chosen from Latin America.”
Obama said today that the Vatican “hosted the US and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”
The Pope’s influence was critical in pushing the deal forward, and he raised the issue repeatedly with Obama when the two men met at the Vatican last March.
“Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discussed,” the White House official said.
The Vatican issued a statement Wednesday, expressing Pope Francis’ “warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations.” The statement also confirmed that in recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to both Castro and 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.”
The statement further acknowledged that the Vatican “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.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome