After more than five decades of hostility, embargo, and diplomatic frigidity, December 17, 2014 brought news of the seemingly impossible—the beginnings of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba. The man at the center of it all, credited with fostering the deal: Pope Francis. It has been revealed that the Holy See had been mediating secret negotiations between Havana and Washington for 18 months in Canada and at the Vatican. The pope himself wrote letters of appeal to Presidents Barack Obama and Rau?l Castro that helped to catalyze the reconciliation.

While many hail this first step towards peace as miraculous, a small but vocal minority are bitter and disparaging of the news—mostly Cuban-Americans who fled from Fidel Castro’s regime. For them, the diplomatic thaw diminishes their experience of oppression under Fidel Castro, and they are not convinced that the Cuban government will make any human rights concessions, even as Obama sets out to persuade Congress to dismantle economic sanctions. Furthermore, since Cuban Americans are overwhelmingly Catholic, many feel betrayed by the key role of their spiritual leader. Following the announcement, Miami resident Efrain Rivas, a political prisoner in Cuba for 16 years, stated, “I’m still Catholic till the day I die, but I am a Catholic without a pope.”

These reactions are understandable, but on the whole, the international community should be buoyed by the announcements. As President Obama said, the US policy of isolating Cuba was “rigid and outdated.” It is only openness to discussion, negotiation, and cooperation that will bring Cuba the economic benefits, and most importantly, the human rights improvements, that are so desperately needed. While the embargo imposed indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people, a more open relationship may bring better results. There is precedent for this perspective. Many credit China’s meteoric rise over the past few decades to US President Nixon’s diplomatic work in 1972, which formally normalized relations with the People’s Republic. Likewise, the opportunity promised by trade between Cuba and the United States will surely be leveraged by Washington and Havana to better the lives of Cubans. These talks are just the beginning of a more open diplomatic relationship that will lead to the exchange of the goods, people, and ideas that should bring serious change to a country so long cut off from progress.

So how did Pope Francis work this miracle? And might his peacemaking powers be similarly effective in the Middle East, or in other areas of conflict?

For as long as there have been popes, they have been key players in international relations and peacemaking. Even as early as the fifth century, by which time the Latin honorific papa had been reserved for the bishop of Rome, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) personally persuaded Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy and spare Rome. Charlemagne, the king who united much of Western Europe, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III (795-816). The papacy crowned Holy Roman Emperors through to the 15th century, and ruled as kings over what were then the Papal States. More recently, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) visited 129 countries as pope, strengthened relations with countless other world religions, had a hand in the collapse of several dictators, and has been credited as being a key player in the fall of communism in Europe. The Vatican has long exercised a policy of dialogue with any and all parties (though previous popes have used varying approaches and levels of caution) and has become a key player in mediating heated international disputes.

Pope Francis’ efforts in Cuba fit in with this tradition, but his success, after decades of failure, demands deeper review. Jonathan Powell, the chief British negotiator who brought about peace with Northern Ireland in 1998 following decades of tension and violence, believes there are two conditions necessary for successful peace negotiations.

One is a “mutually hurting stalemate.” The two sides must both find current relations disadvantageous, and be persuaded that they cannot win through force alone. In the case of US-Cuban relations, the stalemate that endured for nearly five decades hurt the economies of both nations.

The second condition Powell believes is required for peacemaking is strong leadership from both parties that hold the power to follow through on any concessions made in the course of negotiation. Though he cannot lift US embargoes on Cuba without the cooperation of Congress, US President Barack Obama wields significant power. More importantly, he took a political risk in reaching out to establish relations with Cuba, and so is personally invested in seeing further negotiations succeed. Similarly, Cuban President Rau?l Castro can be expected to deliver on his promises. His willingness to release two key US prisoners in return for three high profile Cubans from the United States earned him a surge of public support, and proved him to be more pragmatic than his brother. That he is prepared to make concessions is critical, as is the fact that his public image and power are now tied to the outcomes of these interactions with the United States.

Over the past few years, the conditions for successful peace negotiations were indeed in place for the United States and Cuba. But the question remains: how did Pope Francis succeed in brokering this deal when so many diplomats and leaders before him had failed? In short, the nature of the US-Cuban situation and the confluence of several more timely factors made it an arena uniquely suited to the Pope’s intervention.

Firstly, Cuba’s population, like much of Latin America, is overwhelmingly Catholic, so Pope Francis’ word carries significant authority. For decades, Catholic leaders in both the United States and Cuba have lobbied for reconciliation. High-ranking US Cardinals John O’Connor and Bernard Law regularly visited Cuba beginning in the mid-1980s and pushed for the White House to lift its restrictions. Within Cuba, Archbishop of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega is said to have worked closely with Pope Francis in bringing about this deal. Popes John Paul and Benedict both made official visits to the island nation during their terms as supreme pontiff, though their efforts for peace were waylaid by the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the imprisonment of American aid worker Alan Gross respectively. Pope Francis himself was present in 1998 at the dialogue between Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro in Cuba, and went on to write a book about the meeting. The pope’s success plainly built on years of Catholic efforts towards US-Cuban reconciliation.

It is important to note that until very recently, the Catholic Church in Cuba had been heavily restricted and repressed under Fidel Castro’s Cuban government. It is only since 2008, when Fidel’s health struggles caused him to step down in favor of his brother Rau?l, that Havana has increased religious freedoms in the country. The pope’s influence in Cuba is complemented by the respect his personal integrity has earned him in the United States, allowing him to act as a mediator with serious clout.

Perhaps the main strength of the Vatican as a peacemaking entity is that it is uniquely positioned to play the long game. The very long game. Unencumbered by the constant campaigning for reelection faced by a president or prime minister, the pope himself can expect many years as head of the Church. Nor does the election of a new pope require every other minister to be replaced. Indeed, the patience and persistence that the Catholic Church is capable of makes it an exceedingly effective diplomatic corps. Small gestures over time can build relationships and trust that can reap rewards decades later. And Pope Francis has been described as a master builder of bridges who has started this work around the world already. In an entirely unprecedented move, he welcomed the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, to his papal inauguration, and a close personal alliance has followed. In only two years, he has visited Brazil, South Korea, Albania, France, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, as well as the Holy Land. He has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas to a prayer summit at the Vatican. This pope, even more so than his predecessors, is audacious in his pursuit of peace.

Perhaps the main strength of the Vatican as a peacemaking entity is that it is uniquely positioned to play the long game. The very long game.


Might the pope help ameliorate conflicts elsewhere in the world? It will certainly be more difficult. Pope Francis, being the first Latin American pontiff, was exceedingly well-suited to deal with the situation in Cuba. In addition, most other conflicts in the world fall short of Powell’s criteria for peace. Continued armament, commitment, and hostility in places like Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria, for example, evidences belief that there is victory to be won in fighting. Conflicts in these areas each saw over 10,000 fatalities in 2014, with Syria topping that list at 76,000. Until actors grow weary of violence, the forecast looks bleak for these war-torn regions, no matter how skillful and respected possible mediators might be. Additionally, few conflicts on Earth feature leaders as strong as Obama and Castro on both sides, and fewer still will accept a representative of the Catholic Church as a legitimate mediator, especially in the Middle East.

Still, Pope Francis has shown the ability to be impactful in other ways. In the aftermath of the shootings in Paris that saw 17 people killed, 12 of whom were journalists at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis demonstrated the sagacity and the thoughtful analysis that he is known for. The attacks were staged as retaliation against offending material from the publication that insulted the prophet Mohammed. French President Franc?ois Hollande lauded the journalists as “heroes” and the massive rallies and demonstrations around the world since have treated those killed as martyrs for the cause of freedom of speech. But, dear as this cause is to the West, Pope Francis made a statement a week following, saying that, while he steadfastly defends freedom of expression, “there is a limit,” especially when it comes to mockery and insulting of religion. He illustrated his point by saying that if his aide were to curse or insult his mother, the aide could expect to be punched, driving this home by stating, “you cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith of others.” However, in that very same conversation, he reaffirmed his belief that the violence of the reaction could not be justified, showing his willingness to criticize both sides. Other commentators have said that if Charlie Hebdo were an American publication, it would long ago have been condemned as hate speech, though few besides the pope have publicly attributed any culpability to the publication.

The pope was shrewd in his handling of the US-Cuban dispute, and bold in his statements following the tragedies in Paris, but the most important trait the pope has shown is humility and integrity. This is what makes him such a worthy and credible mediator, listened to by many of the most powerful heads of state around the world. His success in Cuba drew on the influence of Catholicism and the Church in Cuba, the patience and experience of the Catholic Church, and his own skill and suitability for the task. But is this historic peacemaking less of a miracle simply because the stars were aligned? Not at all, and who is to say that Pope Francis cannot, with his patient and bold interventions, cause the stars to be aligned elsewhere? Though there may not be opportunity for him to mediate so directly in the near future, his influence and authority as a moral figure could be used to persuade warring parties that it is finally time to come to the table.