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Raul Castro's diplomatic love match with Pope Francis

  • 13 May 2015

They spoke in Spanish and there was genuine Latin American warmness between the two men.

Last Sunday’s historic 55 minute meeting at the Vatican between the Argentinian Pope Francis and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro marks another step in – as Pope John Paul put it in Havana in 1998 – the island’s ‘openness to the world; and the world openness to Cuba’.

Raúl Castro had already been to the Vatican in 1997 as Minister of Defence in the Cuban delegation lead by his brother and former President Fidel Castro.

This time he found in Pope Francis a caring and trusted diplomatic partner. The Vatican’s aspirations for a peaceful and gradual political transition in Cuba seem to be aligned with Raúl Castro’s domestic and geo-political international strategy.

Both men will meet again – most likely in September – when Pope Francis visits Cuba for the first time. Castro promised – perhaps tongue in cheek - that he would be attending all the masses celebrated by Francis while in Cuba. He spiced up his ‘promise’ with a reminder that he was baptised Catholic and had studied in schools of the Society of Jesus. ‘I’m as Jesuit as the Pope,’ he declared.

Banter aside, the role of Pope Francis in the ending of the last vestige of the Cold War – the Cuban-US hostility – has become fundamental and indispensable. Francis’ active diplomacy has legitimised both ethically and diplomatically. September's pilgrimage of the Pope to Cuba will not only seal the normalisation of the relationship between Washington and Havana that was initiated on 17 December. It will also represent a major boost to national reconciliation among Cubans.

Cuba has hosted two other Popes in the past, John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict in 2012. However it is Francis’ visit that has attracted the greatest enthusiasm among the country's leaders. After all, it is the Argentinean Pope who has given the most direct and clear messages supporting the normalisation of relations with the island.  

Pope Francis’ diplomacy concerning Cuba has two well-defined principles. Washington has to lift its more than 50 year economic embargo against Cuba, and Havana must be open to the fundamentals of democracy: dissent, dialogue and western-style governance.

In the way that Castro has found in the Pope a skilful interlocutor, the Pope has discovered in Castro a political leader able and willing to launch substantial changes in Cuba. Castro – who replaced his brother Fidel in