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Trump’s Cuba decision is troubling for his relationship with the pope

Trump’s new policy on Cuba undoes decades of behind-the-scenes work by the Vatican toward normalization.

Pope Francis Makes Historic Trip To Cuba
Pope Francis meets Cuban President Raul Castro in Holguin, Cuba
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Trump announced Friday a rollback of Obama-era policies regarding American diplomatic relationships with Cuba, saying, "We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer.” The move will widely be seen — on both the left and the right — as part of a wider repudiation of his predecessor and his policies.

By going ahead with his restrictions, which include business restrictions, increased scrutiny on travel to Cuba, and ending the “people-to-people” travel scheme, Trump will likely antagonize another figure with whom he’s recently had a fraught relationship: Pope Francis.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, the pope played a vital role in backchannel diplomacy between Cuba and the United States, and was by all accounts integral to the process of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. While the Vatican was not the only mediator between the two nations — Canada, too, played a major role — it was among the most vocal.

In the summer of 2014, while backchannel negotiations between Cuba and the US were ongoing through Canada, the pope reportedly sent personal letters to both then-President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, urging them to work toward normalizing relations. Francis also reportedly made Cuba a cornerstone of his earlier meetings with Obama.

By the time Obama restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, reopening the US Embassy in Havana, the pope received open credit. His supporters noted that pope’s Latin American background (Francis, who is Argentinian, is the first Latin American pope) and historic interest in Cuba (in 1998, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he wrote a book about then-Pope John Paul II’s relationship with Fidel Castro) made him uniquely well-suited to effect negotiations.

The pope’s September 2015 visit to Cuba — symbolically timed to take place right before his first visit to the United States — was no less significant. Francis spoke in favor of normalized relationships between the two countries as “an example of reconciliation for the entire world”, one that “fills us with hope.”

Pope Francis was hardly the first Vatican representative to work toward American reconciliation with Cuba. The Vatican has traditionally opposed the American embargo, arguing that it is most harmful to the most vulnerable members of Cuban society, particularly due to the country’s delicate relationship between Catholic and secular identity.

Though as many as 70 percent of Cubans (the Vatican’s own estimate) may nominally identify as Catholic, the Castro family has been a formally secular or, since 1992, a formally atheist state. Restrictions on religious membership were lifted in 1991, but governmental restrictions on the building of new churches, as well as the importation of religious literature, have in many ways kept religious practice in the private, domestic sphere: “Home churches” are popular, as are syncretic combinations of Catholic and Afro-Caribbean religious practice, including Santeria. Still, each of the past three popes has visited Cuba: John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012, and then Francis in 2015, all advocating for US-Cuban normalization.

But Francis in particular has occupied a particular place in the Cuban popular consciousness, even among those Cubans who do not necessarily identify as religious. Julie Schwietert Collazo, a freelance journalist specializing in Latin America who has written extensively about Cuba, told Vox that Francis’s international reputation as a “man of the people” rendered him a particularly effective figure to broach the subject of reconciliation, particularly in a communist state.

"Pope Francis, more than President Obama, was viewed by Cubans as a sort of miracle worker for chipping away at the Cold War-style ideological and logistical barrier we'd erected between the US and Cuba,” Collazo said. “Plenty of people had tried to play that role (albeit to a lesser degree), but Pope Francis was the only one who was successful. The acts that preceded his visit to Cuba — visiting migrants in Lampedusa, washing the feet of non-Catholics, being outspoken about other global social ills — made it clear that while he was the figurehead of the Catholic Church, his global social significance and, key, awareness and action is far greater."

The pope has not commented publicly on Trump’s plan.

Trump’s rollbacks, therefore, represent more than just another swipe at Obama’s legacy. They’re also an indication that Trump is more than willing to push back on the legacy of another leader whose popularity on the world stage exceeds his own. Coming so soon on behalf of a pretty awkward-looking Vatican visit, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords — another issue close to Francis’s heart — Trump’s latest decision to scale back the United States’ relationship with Cuba is hardly likely to help US-Vatican relations.

Trump’s public persona is one of unwavering braggadocio. But if he comes to need the help of Pope Francis — who has indicated his role as diplomatic mediator could extend as far as North Korea — he might do well to consider a degree of Christian humility.