By Gerald V. Paul
Pope Francis is credited with paving the way for the U.S. to open its first embassy on Cuban soil since the Kennedy administration, a historic development that Canada helped to create.
The talks may also result in the relaxation of many of the American economic and travel restrictions on Cuba that have defined the relationship between the two nations for decades.
President Barrack Obama does not have the authority to fully lift the long-standing economic embargo on Cuba, given that Congress enacted that policy. However, officials said he would welcome lawmakers taking that step. There remains a divide on Capitol Hill over U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Most of the negotiations took place in Canada starting in the spring but the final deal was hashed out at the Vatican, facilitated by Francis, the first Pope chosen from South / Latin America. The discussions continued when Francis and Obama met at the Vatican in March.
News reports say a senior White House official said yesterday that Francis sent what was characterized as an extraordinary personal letter to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro over the summer, urging both parties to end their frosty relationship. Following the letter, and the negotiations, Obama and Castro had a phone conversation that helped lead to yesterday’s announcement.
Francis found a willing audience in Obama, who administration officials said had already ordered conversations with Cuba before the Francis meeting. Obama does not believe the decades-long embargo on Cuba has worked, the officials said, and the administration believes normalized relations with the Caribbean nation will make it easier for the White House to push the Cuban regime on democratization and human rights.
Apart from restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments.
The U.S. is also hoping to ease travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities. Tourist travel will remain banned.
Licensed American travelers to Cuba will now be able to return to the States with $400 in Cuban goods, except tobacco and alcohol products which must be worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.
The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 per quarter.
In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry is considering a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.