Why the Vatican Was Key to the U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Breakthrough


President Barack Obama greets Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
President Barack Obama greets Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Any Catholic who knows the tragedy of contemporary Cuba well has mixed feelings about the Vatican’s role in the stunning announcement of diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.

Some Cuban-Americans, especially those persecuted by the Castro regime and forcibly displaced, are understandably loath to legitimize the Castros, as are politicians representing the exile community.

One might recoil at the thought of this criminal regime — with the worst human-rights record in the Western Hemisphere — winning undeserved concessions despite jailing a record 6,602 people in 2012 for the slightest sign of protest and erasing brave opponents: people like Oswaldo Paya, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, and his assistant, Harold Cepero, who died in a suspicious car accident that year.

There is also the unjustly curtailed nature of the Church’s life on the island.

Announcements, discussion groups and shared activity — from a pro-life poster and a teen film screening (of an American movie) to a drama club and computer-skills session — are only allowed within the walls of the church. Outside, in public spaces, the poster would be illegal, the film forbidden and the clubs or training all state-controlled.

In this environment, evangelization is strictly curbed. Yet a new Catholic seminary was inaugurated in 2010, and the first new church in 50 years was recently built.

While the Catholic Church has worked for decades to define a zone of freedom, the rest of the society is almost unimaginably controlled and oppressed.

The average Cuban makes $20 per month. Buildings regularly collapse and kill people. Shortages are ubiquitous: Food, medicine or car parts are hard to find, so average people rely on gifts and cash from relatives and friends abroad — an estimated $2 billion in remittances annually.

Because abortion was legalized in 1965 and widely encouraged, abortion has become a form of contraception for two generations. The birth rate is the lowest in Latin America.

These widespread negative conditions impact everyone, including the faithful.

The Church must address the spiritual and material impoverishment of its people — that’s one reason why the Vatican responded to Secretary of State John Kerry’s request for help negotiating with Cuba when he met Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin in January 2014, a plea President Barack Obama reiterated when he met Pope Francis two month later.

Although the U.S. and Cuba had already been engaged in secret talks for some six months, the historical lack of trust on both sides made it difficult to close a deal or make it stick. The Vatican stepped in with two things: the will and the way to change the dynamics of bilateral negotiations.


The Vatican’s Will

Five explanations help situate Pope Francis’ decision, a blend of theological, strategic and thematic positions.

First, the Church must represent people’s needs, not the interests of a state. A hint of this identity is embedded in an unusual public statement issued by the Vatican on Dec. 17. It said the Holy Father applauded the decision “to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties that have marked their recent history.”

The Vatican, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, believes the harsh empirical reality of life in Cuba argues for new efforts to improve conditions. The Vatican is assuming tyranny can’t withstand the power of greater openness. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has been to Cuba many times in the last 20 years, made this point convincingly. 

“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,” he said. “We have consistently advocated that the U.S. should revise this policy, in the hope that engagement and dialogue would prove more helpful in improving conditions in Cuba than a policy of confrontation and isolation.”


History as Moral Task

Second, God works through human history, without negating free will. Christians in positions of power must try to discern what course God favors, using ethical criteria. It’s this moral dimension of diplomatic decision-making that Pope Francis would emphasize, a focus on what “ought” to happen for the common good, not merely what can be obtained through the manipulation of power.

Pope Francis wrote individual letters to Presidents Obama and Raul Castro. He probably challenged them to shoulder historic responsibility for the betterment of their citizens — putting a moral challenge before them requiring an unusual, yet highly personal, commitment. 

On Dec. 18, the Pope explained his philosophy of history in his morning homily: “Step by step, history is made. God makes history; we make history. And when we fail, God makes adjustments and sets history back on course, walking with us all the time.”

The Holy Father continued, mentioning historical leaders such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, “The Lord inconveniences them. The Lord inconveniences us to make history! So often, he puts us on roads that we don’t want to walk.” Undoubtedly, the influential letters he wrote reflected and personalized this notion of this responsibility.


His Region

The most obvious context for Pope Francis’ engagement in this breakthrough is his personal knowledge of Cuba and the region, which gives him insight and credibility. His background provides two more explanations for his interest.

In 1998, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic five-day pilgrimage to Cuba. Much of the progress achieved by the Catholic Church there in the last 15 years can be traced to that extraordinary visit. Pope Francis, at that time, noted the late pope’s influence on Fidel Castro (then and in subsequent years) and witnessed the thrilled response of the Cubans to the presence of the Holy Father. The Pope is well aware of the Church’s special role on the island.

Fourth, as a Latin-American Catholic leader, Pope Francis knows that the region views the U.S. through the optic of Cuba. Even countries that dislike Cuba’s repressive behavior believe the U.S. has provided an excuse for the regime’s non-performing economy through its punitive embargo.

In fact, the Pope showed his own ambivalence toward American economic policy soon after John Paul II’s visit: Archbishop Bergoglio published Diologos Entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro (Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro), in which he criticized the regime for restricting freedom, destroying popular culture and creating hardships for families, while criticizing the “neo-liberal” agenda that puts profits over human dignity. 

With this book, the Pope signaled his independence, which gives him the status of one who can mediate differences between two sides.


Culture of Encounter

Finally, Pope Francis often refers to the importance of personal encounter in bringing people or institutions to reconciliation. “Encounter” is one of his most frequently used terms. According to biographer Austen Ivereigh, Francis draws this concept from the writings of Romano Guardini, an Italian-German priest and philosopher, who also influenced Pope Benedict XVI.

In Argentina, to promote a culture of encounter, Archbishop Bergoglio would host meetings of leaders from different political groups to encourage trust, friendship and the common good. In Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) he wrote, “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy, which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”

The Pope believes personal interaction promotes trust, which allows people to overcome the past. Thus, it makes sense he would eagerly want to facilitate the face-to-face negotiations, as he did at the Vatican for one of the critical, final meetings. Although Presidents Obama and Castro had coinciding interest in normalizing relations, trust did not exist between the parties, which is what the Vatican has with both sides and brought to bear as a “guarantor” that high-risk agreements, such as the spy transfers between the U.S. and Cuba, would take place.


The Vatican’s Team

Supporting Pope Francis is an extraordinarily well-prepared team.

The secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, served from 2009 to 2013 as apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally. He has worked in the past on challenging negotiations for the Church, in Vietnam and China, for example. He participated in some of the U.S.-Cuba negotiations. (See related story on page 6.)

One of Cardinal Parolin’s top deputies is Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, who served as nuncio to Cuba between 2009 and 2011. He was close to complex negotiations in 2010, led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, with Raul Castro to release political prisoners.

Cardinal Ortega has led the Catholic Church in Cuba since 1981, when he became archbishop of Havana. Over the last 33 years, he has steadily built the Church’s status and clout, although the Cuban-American exile community has consistently criticized him for having achieved gains by becoming too close to the ruling dictatorship.

When a new Catholic seminary opened in late 2010, President Raul Castro attended the inauguration. (Although, considering the Castro brothers’ upbringing in a Catholic household and their attendance at a Jesuit-run high school, their habit of ambiguous respect for the Church is not surprising.)

Cardinal Ortega’s most controversial act — the 2010 prisoner release — positioned him well to facilitate the U.S.-Cuban breakthrough.

In an effort to protect the Ladies in White group of women who silently march every Sunday in front of St. Rita Church in Havana to protest the unjust imprisonment of their husbands and sons, Cardinal Ortega wrote to Raul Castro in 2010, requesting the women be allowed to march without being surrounded, heckled, spit upon and generally harassed by mobs that included state security.

That letter led to a meeting between the cardinal, the government and representatives of the Ladies in White, which led to negotiations on the actual release of more than 50 prisoners. 

Most had to agree to immediate forced exile, with their families, to Spain. Cardinal Ortega himself phoned prisoners to give them the terms of release and then delivered tough talks to those who resisted. Based on that performance, Raul Castro’s negotiating team knew the Catholic Church would go to great lengths to honor its agreements.


Moving Forward

The decision to restore diplomatic relations is not the same thing as ending economic sanctions — Congress would have to do that. The president can begin the process of normalization, which could take years to implement. Meanwhile, as a function of greater communication with Cuba, the U.S. government should press hard for three medium-term goals, all supported by Catholics worldwide and on the island: Release all political prisoners; investigate the murder of Oswaldo Paya; and support the pillars of the Varela Project.

The Varela Project had five clear goals: free speech, press and enterprise, free elections and amnesty for all political prisoners.

In 2013, a few days after Pope Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese announced in Espacio Laical (an archdiocesan publication) the creation of Laboratorio Casa Cuba, a team for social and legal research. It includes professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican-socialists and anarchists) and is proposing a program of 23 proposals for Cuba’s future. Thus, Cardinal Ortega, it appears, has taken the role of an overt mentor and sponsor of a socialist-political program.

Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican operate on the assumption that tyranny can’t withstand the power of greater openness. While that was true of the Soviet Bloc, it has not been true in the case of China. Only the course of time, accompanied by the prayers of many, will tell if the Church is right — that normalization of relations with the U.S. will open the island to debate, discussion and democracy.



Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.