In a rare move, a personal plea from Pope Francis contributed to the thawing of more than five decades of tense U.S.-Cuban relations.
“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,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
The pope wrote letters to both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro requesting that they “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 a statement released by the Vatican. Coincidentally, Francis celebrated his 78th birthday on Wednesday.
The news on Wednesday came with the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in Cuba for five years. “What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country,” he said in a press conference in Washington, D.C. Gross had been working to provide internet connectivity to Cuba’s small Jewish population when he was jailed on on espionage charges in 2009.
Francis’ personal involvement in the easing of diplomatic relations, as well as the release of Gross, who was in declining health, highlights the human rights issues at play in the development. A little more than half of Cuba’s population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. Along with others in the country, they have lived under a strict Communist government that has been subject to harsh embargoes for the past five decades. Pope John Paul II in 1998 became the first pontiff to visit Cuba, and he was followed by Pope Benedict in 2012.
Francis, who is from Argentina, is the first Latin American pontiff, making his role in the U.S.-Cuba talks particularly notable. Since becoming the Catholic Church’s leading figure in March of 2013, Francis has expressed views on gay marriage, divorce and women, among other topics, that have been notably more progressive than those of his predecessors. His actions, including choosing a papal name that pays tribute to St. Francis of Assisi, reflect Francis’ focus on compassion for the poor and needy. He gained attention for washing and kissing the feet of inmates, embracing a severely disfigured man in Vatican City and for choosing not to reside in the lavish papal residence.
Obama noted that the pope “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 interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”
Negotiations for normalizing relations between the two countries took place in Canada before moving this fall to the Vatican, where the exchange and transfer of prisoners was specifically discussed, according to NBC News. Discussions between Obama and Francis about Cuba also took place in March.
“The support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us, given the esteem with which both the Cuban and the American people hold the Catholic Church and in particular, Pope Francis, who as you know has a substantial history in Latin America, the first pope to be chosen from Latin America,” said a U.S. official who spoke to reporters on a conference call prior to Obama’s speech.
“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,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Sixty percent of Catholics credited Francis for renewing their faith and commitment to the church, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this year.