The historic deal to begin normalizing relations between the US and Cuba, after 50-plus years of hostility, is being credited primarily to President Obama and Raul Castro, Cuba's current de facto leader and the brother of Fidel. That is with good reason: Obama has been working on this issue throughout much of his presidency and Castro is taking a significant risk by allowing wider Internet access into Cuba as part of the deal.
But there are two actors that quietly played a major role in this: Canada and Pope Francis.
Canada's crucial role in hosting the talks
The negotiations that led to today's announcement, in which the US and Cuba will take major steps toward normalization, took 18 long months, according to a report in the New York Times. And many of those negotiations were held in Canada, formally but secretly hosted by the Canadian government.
Canada was helping to solve two crucial problems. First, the talks needed to remain secret to have any hope of succeeding — had they leaked, the political backlash in the US would have almost certainly killed the deal.
Second, for diplomatic reasons, the talks could not be held on US or Cuban soil, but the negotiators needed a physical meeting place. The Canadian government, which unlike the US does have ties with Cuba but is also extremely close to the US government, was an obviously attractive broker for the US. While Canadian officials did not officially participate in the talks, their role in providing a secret and official channel was crucial, according to US officials.
The Pope actively participated in getting the deal
If Canada was essential for providing the Americans with a safe and secure forum for talks, then Pope Francis played a similar role in helping to bring the Cuban leaders to the negotiating table. And, unlike Canadian officials, who did not sit at from the formal talks, Vatican officials participated actively in discussions.
Pope Francis' role included sending a personal letter to both Obama and Raul Castro over the summer urging them to reach a deal (talks were already ongoing at that point). Francis also reportedly raised the issue repeatedly in his meeting with Obama in March. And Francis hosted the final negotiation session at the Vatican, where Vatican officials participated in the talks.
Pope Francis has an obvious and very important role to play in talks, especially in building trust with the Cuban leadership. Francis, the first-ever pope from Latin America, is seen in the region as someone who can talk to the US but who is sympathetic to long-held Latin apprehensions about American dominance in the region. So he is politically well-positioned as an intermediary that the Cubans can trust.
Francis was also able to push Cuban leaders to continue negotiating. The Catholic church has deep roots in majority-Catholic Cuba, even after Fidel Castro's experiment with Communist-style state atheism, and still plays a real role in politics there. As pope, Francis would have real diplomatic capital and connections within Havana.
This is Francis's first major diplomatic accomplishment since he became pope in 2013. Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005, also had a long record of brokering diplomatic negotiations, including in Latin America.