It has been a generation since Pope John Paul II helped kickstart the collapse of the Soviet Union through his support for anti-communists in his native Poland. Now a new pontiff, Francis, has taken up where John Paul left off.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, has been credited with taking a key role in beginning to heal one of the Cold War’s last open wounds: the standoff between Cuba and the United States.
Like John Paul, Francis wielded diplomacy in a part of the world he knows well and cares deeply about. And like John Paul, he may have benefitted from the tides of history, acting when the time was ripe for change.
On Thursday, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, called Francis’ input “very significant.” Austen Ivereigh, a British writer and biographer of Francis, described a letter the pope wrote to President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro this summer as “the clincher.”
“It reflected the determination to work on the issue Francis had shown when he became pope in 2013,” he said. “Francis is a genius at breaking through and building bridges across boundaries.”
In his book, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” Ivereigh recounts how Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires, accompanied John Paul to Cuba in January 1998 as a Latin American church delegate.
After the trip, he was asked by the Vatican to write a book, "Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro." Bergoglio was highly critical of Cuba’s crackdown on freedoms, but also said, “The motives which led the United States to impose the embargo have been entirely superseded in the present time.”
On Wednesday, President Obama thanked Francis for showing the world “the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”
Other key players at the Vatican were Parolin and the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who is known to be close to Francis.
Although the Vatican diplomatic effort went into high gear when Obama signaled his desire to start talks with Cuba, popes have been pushing to end Cuba’s isolation for decades. Among them were Pope Benedict, who visited Cuba in 2012, and John Paul II, who visited in 1998.
Francis has shown an appetite for attempting to resolve international conflicts, not always so successfully. In June he hosted a prayer meeting in the Vatican gardens with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. Peres described Francis at the time as a “bridge builder of brotherhood and peace.”
Peace, however, has remained elusive in the Middle East.
On Thursday, referring to the Cuba deal, Francis said, “Today we're all happy, because we saw how two people who had been so far apart for so many years took a step closer yesterday.”
Perhaps the greatest diplomatic challenge for Francis will be to restore relations between the Vatican and China, where authorities continue to appoint their own Catholic bishops, much to the displeasure of Rome.
Kington is a special correspondent