Cuba's Catholic Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega takes part in the annual procession of Our Lady of Charity, 2014.
Cuba's Catholic Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega takes part in the annual procession of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba in Havana, September 8, 2014.
Enrique De La Osa / Courtesy Reuters

The restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties in mid-December demonstrated the geopolitical relevance of religious institutions. The deal would not have happened without the Catholic Church and Jewish organizations. Jewish groups made Alan Gross, the prisoner at the heart of the reversal, impossible to ignore; and then the Catholic hierarchy provided the trust required to move the negotiations beyond stalemate. U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will surely benefit from the thaw in different ways, but anti-Castro Catholics resent the Church’s involvement.


Alan Gross was a USAID contractor who specialized in setting up Internet access. His work had been part of a big shift in the United States’ democracy promotion efforts on the island away from traditional political activism. A major setback occurred in 2003, when Cuba jailed some 75 democratic dissidents who had been associated with U.S. programs, which effectively shut down one of the most promising local opposition efforts since 1959. By 2009, the United States had turned toward more technology-driven programs (including a secret social media platform) and engaging marginalized communities.

It was under these circumstances that Alan Gross traveled to Cuba on tourist visas five times in 2009. His assignment from USAID (for which he earned $500,000 and a $3.2 million settlement) was to set up satellite Internet service for three Jewish communities. An estimated 14,000 Jews fled Cuba after the revolution, leaving behind a community of some 1,500 believers, which attracts wide support from around the world. For his USAID assignment, Gross identified himself as part of a Jewish humanitarian group and gave other American Jews some of his equipment to transport in carry-on bags, according to an AP review of his reports. 

Cuban security arrested Gross in December 2009, sending a strong message to the U.S. government and collecting a bargaining chip to help in negotiations over Cuba’s biggest grievance with Washington: the 1998 arrest in Miami of the “Cuban Five,” spies convicted of contributing to the deaths of four Americans. It is likely that Gross was targeted because he is Jewish­—not out of anti-Semitism, but because his identity would make him a more valuable asset during negotiations.

Soon after Gross was jailed, a campaign to win his release took shape. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the Orthodox Union all played a role. His team—including a law firm, a well-connected PR firm working pro bono, and a fleet of volunteers—mobilized over 500 rabbis in countries from Australia to Canada, Columbia to China, Germany, Israel, Italy, Sweden, and the Virgin Islands to the United Kingdom. At the request of the American Jewish Committee, Pope Benedict XVI even mentioned Gross to Castro during the pontiff’s 2012 visit to Cuba. 


Obama had started his first term by promising a new day with Latin America—in April 2009 at the Summit of the Americas, he even declared, to great applause, that “the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” But, by the start of his second term, dialog with Cuba was dead and most of the Southern Hemisphere blamed the United States. And so, to restore U.S. relations with the entire region, the Obama administration ranked improving ties with Cuba high. For his part, Castro had ended restrictions on travel abroad in October 2012 and continued to pursue limited economic reform. Yet, Gross still stood in the way of a bilateral thaw. In June 2013, secret face-to-face talks between the United States and Cuba began, but six months later, the two countries were still fixated on prisoner exchange.

In January 2014, John Kerry, by then secretary of state, visited the Vatican for the first time—for any Catholic, as Kerry is, it was a major event. He toured the Sistine Chapel and met Pope Francis’ own new Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. At the unusually long meeting, Kerry requested the Vatican’s help to free Gross both because ongoing talks between small groups of aides to the two presidents were faltering and because numerous bishops around the world, including Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, pointed to Francis as a potential interlocutor. 

Having served as an ambassador to Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, from 2009 to 2013, Parolin knew about Gross. Like most leaders in Latin America, he considered the U.S.-Cuban stalemate harmful to the region and the embargo counterproductive. He and his deputy, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, who was ambassador to Cuba from 2009 to 2011, were thus poised to facilitate a unique role for the Vatican—serving as “guarantor” of a deal in which both sides made uncomfortable concessions, a role the Church played in Cuba in 2010 when 52 political prisoners were released

When Obama met with Francis at the Vatican two months after Kerry, he briefed the Pope on Gross. A few days later, the Pope wrote letters to Castro and Obama, urging them to “resolve humanitarian questions…including the situation of certain prisoners.” He also offered to facilitate meetings between the two sides at the Vatican. According to one U.S. diplomat who has worked with the Vatican, its most valuable characteristic is secrecy: “They never leak anything,” which was particularly valuable in this case. The prisoner exchange deal was finalized at the Vatican two months ago, which included the release of Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who had been jailed in Cuba for 20 years for providing information on the “Cuban Five” to the United States.


Francis’ personal style prepared him well to shepherd the interlocutors. He keeps a little-known painting called “Mary Untier of Knots” on his desk. The image shows Jesus’ mother patiently untying a long knotted ribbon. He also stresses creating a “culture of encounter,” an idea Francis developed based on the writings of Romano Guardini, an Italian–German priest and philosopher. It means hosting meetings of leaders from different political and religious groups to encourage trust, friendship, and the common good. This is why he often meets with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It’s why the Pope sponsored a prayer summit between former Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last June. And it is why he urged Cuba and the United States to come together.

Especially with Castro, Francis has pull. Raul and Fidel Castro were raised by a rosary-reciting, Catholic mother. They attended high school at the Jesuit-run Belen College, although Raul didn’t finish. Despite initially declaring Cuba an atheist state, the Castros have regularly, if hypocritically, paid respect to the Catholic Church. Fidel’s visit to the Vatican in 1996 laid the ground for Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in January 1998 when the Pope called for the release of some political prisoners, which occurred a few months later.

In Cuba, in other words, the church is still strong. Havana’s Cardinal Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino has followed a strategy of reconciliation on the island, avoiding confrontation with the state while winning more independence to carry out the Church’s religious mission. Under Ortega’s 35-year leadership, the Catholic Church, to which about 60 percent of all Cubans belong, has emerged as the only national institution that functions independent of the state. 

Still, Ortega was never popular with regime opponents because of his determination to avoid confrontation. While Benedict was in Cuba, Ortega refused to arrange a meeting between the Pope and opposition leaders. Instead, devout Catholic opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya found Cuban security surrounding his house to prevent him from attending Benedict’s public Mass. Five months later, Paya was killed in a car accident suspected of being engineered by state agents. No investigation has ever been completed. Although Ortega presided over Paya’s funeral, his family says the cardinal did nothing to protect or promote the democracy movement Paya fostered. Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, the regime opponent’s daughter, wrote an eloquent critique of the U.S.–Cuba deal in The Washington Post. Many other dissidents are similarly disappointed with the news.

But Ortega likely isn’t losing sleep about this criticism. He has a different vision of Cuba’s future: A few days after Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese published a document containing 23 proposals produced by a group, Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists, and anarchists).” It’s a Christian social–democratic program, with an anti-American cherry on top.   

Gross was released on the first day of Hanukkah. He opened his press conference in Washington with the Hebrew phrase Chag Sameach (Happy holiday) and thanked many, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, synagogues, his Shabbat group, and “other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations” for his release. He didn’t mention Francis, presumably because he had no direct experience with the Pope’s intervention in his case. But Francis probably won’t mind. At the Vatican, he’s probably already starting on the next knot. 

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