The historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations announced Wednesday morning had a surprise actor behind the scenes: Pope Francis.
Senior White House officials painted the pontiff as a key player in facilitating negotiations, and both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro gave him shoutouts at separate press conferences announcing the “normalization” of relations between the two countries. The complete redefinition of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. also freed U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, something for which Pope Francis also pushed.
"His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan's case," Obama said during a statement from the White House.
Later in his statement, Obama directly thanked Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, for helping to facilitate the deal.
"In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis whose moral example shows us we should work for the world as it should be instead of accepting it as it is,” he said.
The Vatican issued a statement Wednesday in which it congratulated both governments on the “historic decision.” It said that Pope Francis had written letters to both presidents urging them to resolve decades of dispute.
The Vatican was the only government to take a direct role in facilitating the conversations between the U.S. and Cuban governments, according to the Vatican and senior U.S. officials. In October, Pope Francis hosted delegations from the two countries, where a U.S. official said the countries were able to “review the commitments that we’re making today.”
The senior official said that was the key meeting between the delegations where “all was finalized.” About two months later, Obama and Castro spoke over the phone in the first presidential-level discussion between the countries since the Cuban revolution.
“President Obama has enormous respect for Pope Francis, and his personal engagement in this was important to us,” the senior U.S. official said.
Obama and Pope Francis discussed Cuba when the two met at the Vatican in March, senior administration officials said.
“Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else that the two of them discussed,” one senior official said.
In a nationally televised address, Castro, a fierce critic of U.S. presidents, had respectful words for Obama and praised Pope Francis for his help.
“This decision by President Obama deserves the respect and recognition from our people,” Castro said. “I want to thank and recognize the support of the Vatican, especially Pope Francis, for his work to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
Castro also thanked the Canadian government “for creating the conditions” for high-level talks between the two countries.
Since becoming pontiff, Pope Francis, who is Argentine, has cultivated his relationships with many Latin American leaders, including Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has frequently questioned U.S. policy towards Cuba.
Francis, a former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was an active member of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, which along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has long called for normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Obama, Castro, and U.S. officials also credited Canada in coordinating the developments. Obama thanked Canada in his address from the White House.
A senior administration official said Canada hosted multiple meetings between the U.S. and Cuban delegations beginning in June of last year and ending last month. The official said Canada did not participate in the discussions, but the meeting ground they provided was “indispensable,” providing cover for both governments to negotiate in secret.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.