Pope played crucial role in US-Cuba rapprochement 

VATICAN CITY -- The crucial role played by Pope Francis in bringing Cuba and the U.S. together signals that history's first Latin American pope has no qualms about putting the Holy See on the front lines of diplomacy, especially for a cause it has long championed.

The Vatican said Wednesday that Francis wrote to President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in recent months and invited them to resolve their differences over humanitarian issues, including prisoners.

In addition, the Vatican hosted U.S. and Cuban delegations in October "and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties," the Vatican said.

In his announcement, Obama referred twice to Francis and thanked him for his involvement, saying his "moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is."

Indeed, Francis has shown he is willing to use his popularity and moral authority to do the unthinkable for a good cause. This past June he invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a day of peace prayers at the Vatican, and before that agreed to requests to help facilitate talks between the Venezuelan government and opponents.

Elisabetta Pique, an Argentine journalist and author of the authoritative biography "Pope Francis, Life and Revolution," said Francis had long been concerned about the effects of the U.S.-Cuba estrangement, given his position as a prominent churchman in Latin America. He frequently stressed the need for cultural engagement and dialogue.

Key events in U.S.-Cuba relations

THE START: Fidel Castro's rebels take power as dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959. The U.S. soon recognizes the new government. But relations begin to sour as Americans criticize summary trials of executions of Batista loyalists. In 1960, Cuba nationalizes U.S.-owned oil refineries after they refuse to process Soviet oil. Nearly all other U.S. businesses are expropriated soon afterward.

EXPANDING CRISES: The U.S. declares an embargo on most exports to Cuba in October 1960 and breaks diplomatic relations in January 1961. Three months later Castro declares Cuba a socialist state -- just a day before the doomed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro. Meanwhile, U.S. agents are organizing repeated efforts to assassinate the Cuban leader.

ARMAGEDDON AVERTED: In October 1962, a U.S. blockade forces removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba after a standoff brings the world near nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy agrees privately not to invade Cuba.

FOILED RAPPROCHEMENT: President Jimmy Carter tries to normalize relations with Cuba shortly after taking office in 1977, re-establishing diplomatic missions and negotiating the release of thousands of prisoners. But conflicts over Cuba's military mission in Africa, tension caused by a flood of Cuban refugees in 1980 and the election of President Ronald Reagan end the rapprochement.

CUBA STANDS ALONE: The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union devastates the Cuban economy, but the country limps along, first under Fidel and then, after he falls ill in 2006, under his brother Raul, head of the Cuban military.

PRISONERS: The U.S. arrests five Cuban spies in 1998 and Cuba mounts an international campaign to free them, saying they were defending the island against U.S.-based terror attempts. In December 2009, Cuba arrests USAID contractor Alan Gross, accusing him of subversion. That stifles incipient efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba ties under President Barack Obama.

BREAKTHROUGH: Obama and Raul Castro announce they are restoring diplomatic ties and exchanging prisoners, including Gross and the remaining three members of Cuban Five spy ring.

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