Obama thanks Pope Francis for help in US-Cuba deal

by Joshua J. McElwee

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U.S. President Barack Obama thanked Pope Francis in a nationally televised address Wednesday for help the pope gave in facilitating the beginning of normalization in relations between the United States and Cuba.

The pontiff, Obama said, wrote personally to both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro urging them to find a way to resolve Cuba's imprisonment of U.S. citizen Alan Gross.

"His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba's President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan's case," Obama said.

Later in the address, Obama thanked Francis for his example. 

"In particular," Obama said, "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."

Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in Cuba in 2009 on charges of illegally bringing technological equipment into the country without proper authorization. As part of a new rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, he returned to the U.S. on Wednesday.

The Obama administration announced earlier Wednesday that it was widely revising U.S. policy toward Cuba and "immediately" beginning discussion on normalizing diplomatic relations with the country, which were severed in 1961. 

The Vatican's Secretariat of State issued a statement after Obama's speech Wednesday expressing "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."

Francis, said the statement, had written letters to both Obama and Castro "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 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 statement continued.

"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," it concluded.

While the Obama administration does not plan at this point to lift the long-standing U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which would take an act of Congress, it is planning to reopen an embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana.

According to a fact sheet published by the White House, the change in policy will also allow U.S. citizens to send more money to Cuba on a monthly basis.

Beyond seeking to reopen the U.S. embassy, Obama said Wednesday that he had directed the State Department to review its inclusion of Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism and had taken steps to increase the flow of travel and information between the countries.

"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," Obama said. "It's time for a new approach."

Although it remains unknown exactly how Francis approached Obama, it's possible the two spoke about Cuba during the president's visit to the Vatican in March.

Francis, an Argentine native, is the first pope from the Americas.

U.S.-Vatican collaboration in geopolitical affairs is not unprecedented: Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan are known to have corresponded several times in the 1980s, particularly about communist-era Poland, John Paul II's native country.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.] 

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 2-15, 2015 print issue under the headline: Obama credits pope's help for Cuba thaw.

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