In March 2014, Pope Francis met with U.S. President Barack Obama and spoke to him about Cuba, Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners the island nation was demanding back.
Little is known about that conversation, but two White House officials later said those had been the main issues discussed that day. They thanked the Vatican afterwards for its role in the negotiations with Cuba.
When it was announced that the Pope would be visiting the United States in September 2015, the Cuban government thought it was a good opportunity to invite him to visit Cuba as well.
In September, Pope Francis will be travelling to Cuba, a country he already visited in 1998 as Jorge Bergoglio, as part of the entourage of Pope John Paull II. At the time, he was one of the Assistant Bishops in Buenos Aires.
He poured the memories of that trip into a 140-plus page book titled Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro –that was rescued from oblivion by the Argentinean press following the announcements of December 17th, 2014.
The book contains his first opinions on Cuba, its socialist system and conflict with the United States.
He devoted a few lines to the “Special Economic Period” –as the economic crisis of the 1990s is known in Cuba— and the U.S. embargo of the island nation, at a time when it was just coming out of the worst economic crisis of its history. “The Cuban people must overcome this isolation,” he wrote upon his return to Argentina.
Sixteen years went by. Cuba and the United States had been holding secret talks for several months when, in the summer of 2014, Pope Francis stepped in on his own account. An official with the Obama Administration said that the Pope was aware that the president was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the president, something that the source described as “a very rare occurrence.”
Francis sent letters to the White House and the Palacio de la Revolucion, asking for a solution to the imprisonment of American contractor Alan Gross in Cuba, and the three Cubans in the United Sates. The swap of prisoners and even the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations was agreed upon in a secret meeting within the Vatican walls, by representatives of Obama and Raul Castro. Both presidents, more than once, thanked the Pope for his mediation.
“His Holiness’ presence in Cuba will be memorable,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told the press in Brussels, Belgium, amid his European tour. “He will receive the warmest hospitality of the Cuban people.”
“I don’t know what is with this island, but the fact that, despite its unique socio-political conditions, God has granted us the privilege of receiving the visit of three Popes in just 16 years- that is something extraordinary that should make us think,” said Orlando Marquez, director of Palabra Nueva magazine, and spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Havana.
After John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI, also visited the island in 2012.
“The American and the Cuban presidents have thanked Pope Francis for his desire to help in the process of re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries,” added Marquez. “That is well known in here, and we Cubans are very grateful for that. I believe his pastoral visit will confirm his support to this process.”