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. “Pope Francis really made it happen, but the Holy See has always had relations with Cuba; not always great relations – Castro was not exactly friendly to the Church – but we always kept the lines open.”
“There are lots of things going on quietly around the world that we don’t always get credit for,” says the Vatican official. “With Cuba, we have been honest brokers. We recognized they had legitimate complaints about the embargo, though we were not naive about the situation.”
The Castro regime saw the Vatican, to some extent, as an ally in its decades-long confrontation with the US. “The Holy See has always been against embargoes because we think they hurt the poorest and most vulnerable, not the people they are aimed at,” the official said.
Kenneth Hackett, the US ambassador to the Holy See, said Washington was grateful for “the key role” played by the Vatican in helping to bring more than a year of secret talks “to a successful conclusion.”
A crucial component of the diplomatic effort was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State – effectively the prime minister of the tiny sovereign nation. Until last year he was the Vatican’s “nuncio,” or ambassador, to Venezuela, a long-time ally of Cuba, and has extensive knowledge of Latin America.
The fact that Pope Francis comes from the continent, and speaks Spanish, also helped smooth talks between the former foes.
“It wasn’t a game-changer, but it was certainly helpful that he knows the culture and the language. He feels very Latin,” says the Vatican insider.