WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Mar 2014 | News

President Obama’s Meeting with Pope Francis and the Issue of Cuba


By Geoff Thale

This Thursday, March 27, President Obama and Pope Francis are scheduled to meet at the Vatican. The two leaders have expressed common concerns about poverty and inequality and will discuss those along with a range of issues of interest to the Vatican and the United States. According to the president’s advisers, Cuba is on the short list of international issues that will likely be discussed during the talks. 

Following a preparatory meeting at the Vatican on January 14, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, “I raised the issue of [imprisoned U.S. Agency for International Development contractor] Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue.” Alan Gross has been imprisoned in Cuba since late 2009 for his role in implementing U.S. government "democracy promotion" programs on the island. 

News reports in the last few days have suggested that the Vatican might be interested in a Cuba agenda that is broader than the Gross case alone, with the Washington Post reporting that it might include the U.S. embargo. 

The Vatican has consistently advocated for improving the living conditions of average Cubans and views the U.S. embargo as an impediment to progress on human rights and political liberty on the island. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and made clear their opposition to the U.S. embargo. 

The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on September 13, 2013 calling for greater openness in Cuba itself. In the letter, the bishops quote Pope John Paul II, who said after his visit to Cuba that “measures imposed from abroad on the country are unjust and ethically unacceptable.” 

The most recent statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came in the form of a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice on September 26 of last year. Following the lead of the Church in Cuba, the bishops make clear that they oppose the U.S. embargo and believe that “more engagement will help the people of Cuba achieve greater freedom, human rights, and religious liberty.”

In what could be a wide-ranging discussion about Cuba that touches on the Gross case but also other issues, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to express the shared views of the Cuban and U.S. Catholic Bishops, urging President Obama to dialogue with Cuba over the issues that divide the two countries, rather than continuing the U.S. embargo. 

Geoff Thale is WOLA's Program Director.

Ana Goerdt
WOLA Cuba Program Officer
+1 952-210-9911
[email protected]

Photo by Casa Rosada de Argentina via Wikimedia Commons