Cardinal Parolin Played Key Role in U.S.-Cuba Negotiations

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Vatican secretary of state and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, had spoken often in the past year, a Vatican source said.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before their bilateral meeting in New York City on Sept. 23.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before their bilateral meeting in New York City on Sept. 23. (photo: Flickr/U.S. Department of State)

VATICAN CITY — While Pope Francis is being widely credited for helping to restore diplomatic and economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, he was helped in large part by his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

President Barack Obama announced yesterday a re-establishment of diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba after more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican.

An informed source close to the talks told the Register the contribution of Cardinal Parolin was “definitely significant” and that, as a highly respected Vatican official among Rome diplomats, he had built up a “very good relationship” with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The source said Cardinal Parolin and Kerry, who met at the Vatican as recently as Monday, have “spoken often” over the past year. They spent an hour discussing a wide range of foreign-policy issues, including Cuba, although developments were kept strictly secret until Wednesday. The secretaries of state had their first, lengthier meeting in January this year. 

Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told reporters Dec. 17 that “a senior Vatican official” played “an important part” in a historic meeting in October, when the American and Cuban delegations “helped bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.” He didn’t name Cardinal Parolin, although the Italian diplomat is widely perceived to have been that senior official.


Significant Breakthroughs

As the Vatican’s “deputy foreign minister” from 2002 to 2009, the then-Archbishop Parolin scored some significant breakthroughs, such as cementing ties between the Holy See and Vietnam, re-establishing direct contact with Beijing in 2005 and helping secure the liberation of 15 British navy personnel captured by Iranian forces in the Arabian Gulf in April 2007.

He also worked to resolve tensions in a variety of trouble spots, such as in East Timor, and between Ecuador and Peru over rights to the Amazonian territories along their disputed borders. When Francis appointed him to the Vatican’s top diplomatic post last year, he received wide acclaim from Rome’s diplomatic corps. “He’s so highly respected,” said one diplomat. “He’s such a good person, such a good listener.”

Cardinal Parolin himself, however, prefers to credit Pope Francis as the main mover in re-establishing diplomatic ties. Speaking to Vatican Radio Thursday, he stressed that the role of the Pope was “very significant” and that the achievement reflects the Holy Father’s emphasis on building bridges between persons, groups and nations.

The Holy See’s role, he said, was to “facilitate the dialogue between the two parties,” in keeping with Francis’ objectives. The Pope’s Latin-American background and his personal interest in resolving the long-running dispute is also believed to have been a key factor.

Formal U.S.-Cuba relations were severed, and a trade embargo imposed, in the early 1960s, after Cuba’s revolution led to communism. But despite President Fidel Castro then imposing strict restrictions on religious freedom, the Holy See never severed diplomatic ties with Cuba — the only communist country with which the Holy See has maintained unbroken, formal relations.

This factor is also said to have enabled the Vatican to act as an effective mediator.

The contribution of Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana, is also being mentioned as significant. 


Personal Appeal

In a Dec. 17 statement, the Vatican said Francis personally wrote to President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro, inviting 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.”

Rome diplomats have been working overtime since Francis’ election, largely because they say his popularity is forcing world leaders to pay more attention to what he and the Holy See say on the world stage. Officials have been predicting Francis would take a leading role in mediating international disputes, but until now, successes have been slow in coming, despite concerted papal efforts to broker peace in trouble spots such as the Holy Land and the Korean Peninsula.

Cardinal Parolin acknowledged in his interview with Vatican Radio that “not everybody agrees” with the decision announced Wednesday, but he wished to stress the “courage” it took for both presidents to make the historic move.

Thanking God for inspiring “such good sentiments and intentions” in the two leaders, the Vatican secretary of state said he hoped this example could be emulated by other regional leaders to overcome differences and conflict through “negotiation and through dialogue.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.