After 53 years of frozen relations between the United States and Cuba, American President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro have forged a historic agreement. The two countries have agreed to exchange prisoners, relax embargo laws, and re-open diplomatic relations after a half century of fossilized opposition. During his speech announcing the radical shift in relations on December 17, President Obama explained what led to today’s breakthrough:
His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve [the case of Alan Gross] and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.
It turns out that Pope Francis intervened personally with President Obama during the President’s visit to the Vatican this past March, and then followed-up with private letters to Presidents Obama and Castro, calling on them personally to take action. Intensive work at the Vatican this Fall, with the cooperation of Canadian diplomats, worked out the fine details of the agreement that became official on Wednesday.
While the Holy See has diplomatic relations with around 180 sovereign states and is party to numerous other international agreements, it is not always the case that the Pope and the Holy See receive a global spotlight for the behind-the-scenes work they do daily across the world.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has attempted to intervene on such an important issue of international relations. Last year he wrote a personal letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and this Spring he hosted a meeting of Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas in the Vatican. The scale of Pope Francis’ success in the present US-Cuba agreement, however, is greater than any of his previous international diplomatic interventions.
But an intervention on that level by the Pope is itself not unprecedented.
It’s late December, 1978, and Chile and Argentina are on the brink of war. Their dispute is over three small islands at the southern tip of South America – islands that would be unremarkable if it were not for their strategic location where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet in the Beagle Channel. Both countries make impassioned cases for their claims before the world community. Yet, time after time, the talks between the two countries break down. The situation deteriorates so far that the military junta of Argentina draws up an invasion plan and orders its execution just days before Christmas 1978. Argentine troops are about to cross the border into Chile when, out of the blue, the Argentine junta calls off the operation completely. Within days, Chile and Argentina are at the table, agreeing on the first step in solving the conflict: bring in the Vatican.
What happened? John Paul II, Pope for just over two months, had personally intervened and prevailed upon the Argentine junta to allow the Holy See to broker the accord between the two nations, which at last they signed in 1984. Archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi, Papal Nuncio to Argentina at the time, was instrumental in these negotiations.
Fast forward to today: December 17, 2014. That the first Pope from Latin America has brokered the historic agreement between Cuba and America has been noticed by the Press. USA Today, Time, The Guardian and others have acknowledged the pivotal role the Holy See, and the Pope personally, played in working out this agreement, pointing out the Latin American connection.
But in the Latin American world, Cuba and Argentina represent opposite ends of the geographical, cultural, linguistic, and political spectrum. Far closer to home for Pope Francis would have been the powerful witness of Pope John Paul II in his successful intervention between Bergoglio’s native Argentina and its neighbor Chile in the Beagle Conflict.
At the end of today’s speech, President Obama again acknowledged the role of Francis in the present agreement: “In particular I want to thank his holiness Pope Francis, for [trying to make the world] as it should be, rather than as it is.”
To that, history should also add acknowledgement of John Paul II for setting the precedent, and Archbishop Calabresi—a key negotiator in the Argentine/Chilean agreement—who oversaw Bergoglio’s ascendancy to the episcopate in 1992. (The two bishops are pictured, left.)
While Bergoglio was initially reticent to accept the call from Pope John Paul II to become a bishop—on the grounds that being a bishop would conflict with his vows as a Jesuit—John Paul II, through Calabresi, addressed Bergoglio’s concerns, and at last prevailed upon him to accept the call. Had that negotiation failed, only history would know if Wednesday’s historic agreement—overseen by the Pope from Argentina—would have ever come about.
Fr. Andrew Liaugminas is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a doctoral student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Sheila Liaugminas is Fr Andrew’s mother and the author of MercatorNet’s Sheila Reports blog.