WASHINGTON — The United States and Cuba have normalized diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years, with the help of the Vatican and the personal intervention of Pope Francis.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said it was “long past due” for the U.S. to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Our conference has long held that universal human rights will be strengthened through more engagement between the Cuban and American people,” he said.

The bishop of Las Cruces, N.M., added that the bishops’ conference strongly supported the review of Cuba’s current status as a designated state sponsor of terrorism and the lifting of trade, travel and financial restrictions; the bishops also encouraged cooperation between the two countries in areas of mutual interest.

“Engagement is the path to support change in Cuba and to empower the Cuban people in their quest for democracy, human rights and religious liberty,” he said.

The White House revealed Dec. 17 that it agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and swap prisoners as part of an agreement brokered by the Vatican.

A senior administration official said in a White House conference call that Pope Francis appealed personally to both President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in a letter, asking them to “resolve the case of Alan Gross and the case of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship.”

As part of the prisoner exchange, Cuba released Gross, a U.S. citizen imprisoned there for five years, on “humanitarian grounds,” as well as an unidentified intelligence “asset” who was held there for 20 years, according to the White House official. In return, the U.S. released three imprisoned Cuban spies.

“The support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us, given the esteem with which both the American and Cuban people hold the Catholic Church,” the official said.

Plans are in place for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to begin talking to Cuba “on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations” for the first time since 1961, the White House said. Also in the works is a new U.S. embassy in Havana and high-level visits to the country.

“Our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong and, we believe, more effective under this policy,” the administration official said.

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State announced that Pope Francis sent “his warm congratulations for the historic decision” to both countries for taking this step.

 

Opposition to Restoration

However, the president’s announcement did stoke criticism from both sides of the partisan divide in Washington, including from some Catholic lawmakers.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the president set “an extremely dangerous precedent” by trading three convicted spies “for an innocent American.”

“It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants, stated that the president’s actions were “inexplicable,” pointing out that Cuba is a designated state sponsor of terrorism “like Syria, Iran and Sudan.”

“It colludes with America’s enemies, near and far, to threaten us and everything we hold dear. But, most importantly, the regime’s brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated.” 

But attitudes toward the U.S. policy have been shifting among Cuban Americans. According to a June poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County, released by Florida International University in Miami, 68% wanted diplomatic relations with Cuba restored, 71% said the U.S. embargo of Cuba has not worked very well or at all, and 52% wanted it ended. The poll noted that, back in 1991, 87% of polled Cuban Americans supported the embargo.

 

Game Changer

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami called the announcement a “game changer” in the U.S.-Cuba relationship and praised Pope Francis for his role in bringing it about.

“Pope Francis did what popes are supposed to do: build bridges and promote peace,” he said.

“The Church in Cuba has always opposed the embargo, arguing that it was a blunt instrument that hurt the innocent more than the guilty; and the U.S. Church has supported the Catholic Church in Cuba.”

According to Catholic Relief Services’ country profile of Cuba, the island nation’s living conditions are “quite severe.” The nation has a deteriorating economy, where people are mired in poverty, earning an average monthly salary of $17.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, said that while Congress would have to pass legislation ending the embargo, the president’s administration has a “fair amount of discretion” in many areas, such as in travel, remittance allowances and trade.

“Cuba does have a troubled record on human rights, and we have to acknowledge that. They are not a fully open society,” he said.

But he noted that the policy of trade and engagement “was very instrumental in fostering positive change in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,” which helped ordinary people do better and also yearn for more freedom.

“We’ve been doing the embargo for decades now, and it has not had its desired effect. So, now, a new strategy seems in order, and the Church is quite confident the strategy of engagement will bring far greater fruits in the long run.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.