Pope Francis Brokers End to Cuba Embargo, Despite Opposition of Catholic Pols

There will be much debate surrounding today’s announcement of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the US, but I hope the voices of the Cuban and Cuban-American people will be heard. While politicians like Marco Rubio, Mario Díaz-Balart, and Carlos Curbuel use their national platforms to denounce the changes, they do not represent the majority of Cuban-Americans (68%) who support re-establishing diplomatic ties with the island. In fact, although they’re comfortable pointing to the Church to justify socially conservative positions, they’re in opposition to the Church on this one, with the pope himself having played a major role in the negotiations.

In her 1993 novel, Dreaming in Cuban, Cuban-American author Cristina Garcia eloquently wrote “Cuba is a peculiar exile, I think, an island-colony. We can reach it by a thirty-minute charter flight from Miami, yet never reach it at all.” Today, Cuba is more in our reach.

As a Cuban-American from Miami I have been raised amidst the existential crisis of the Cuban exile community, a community with a rabid anger towards the Castro regime and simultaneous love and compassion for their fellow Cubans on the island. I, like many children of exiles, was raised holding my breath for the death of Fidel Castro, for any change in the Castro regime, for a dramatic end to the exile that began in 1959. Fidel stole our dramatic end from us when he quietly handed power over to his brother Raul.

With today’s historic speech, President Barack Obama has radically repositioned the tone and nature of United States policy towards Cuba. These changes include: re-establishing diplomatic ties and opening an embassy on the island; reviewing the current designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism; and increasing commerce, travel, and the free flow of information on the island. The spirit of these changes is guided by the principle that “Isolation has not worked; It’s time for a new approach.” This approach is engagement. Obama also highlighted the sentiment, shared by many, that the embargo has not worked.

Earlier this year Pope Francis, a key player in these negotiations, issued a personal appeal to both Obama and Castro to resolve the case of Alan Gross (a development worker imprisoned 5 years ago on charges of espionage) and take steps to improve their relationship. We now know that the Vatican participated in negotiations between these two countries, and Pope Francis himself was present at the final negotiation. Both Obama and Castro thanked him in their speeches today, after which the Pope issued a statement congratulating both nations. I am sure Pope Francis, like Obama, will bear the weight of heavy critique in the next few days for his role in this historic moment.

I would argue that these negotiations began when John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998. This was followed by the opening of a new Catholic seminary in 2010, and Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit. As I indicated in a previous piece on RD, the Catholic Church has been an agent of reconciliation for the island, whether it was bringing together Cubans and Cuban-Americans on the island to commemorate Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, or being a key voice regarding human rights violations by the Castro regimes.

I’m not surprised that Francis had a hand in this historic moment. The first Latin American pope has played a key role in transforming the political landscape of the Americas while demonstrating that the Catholic Church still wields power in the region, despite reports of its declining influence.

It’s very telling that Obama quoted José Martí, universally recognized as the father of the Cuban nation, and often cited by both the Castro regime and Cuban exiles to legitimize their political stances. “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.” We have to be honest and recognize that the road ahead is much more complex and painful than the media sound bites will make it out to be.