| VATICAN CITY
VATICAN CITY Argentine Pope Francis and a trio of top Vatican officials who helped broker the historic deal between the United States and Cuba represent an unprecedented brain trust in Latin American affairs at the Holy See.
The collective expertise in America's southern hemisphere is a shift from the largely Europe-oriented foreign policy priorities of the Vatican under previous popes, particularly Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who is credited with helping bring down the Iron Curtain.
The Vatican's deep involvement in the Cuba deal also highlights the current pope's tighter grip over the Vatican's sprawling administration. Under the retired Pope Benedict, the Vatican administration - and particularly the secretariat of state - operated largely without oversight and was marked by confusion, bickering and leaks that hampered its diplomatic abilities.
Pope Francis - who wrote a book about Cuba in the 1990s - praised the work of people involved in Vatican diplomacy on the day after the Cuba deal was announced.
"The work of an ambassador is a labor of small steps, of small things, but they always end up in peace making, bringing the hearts of people closer to each other, sowing brotherhood among peoples," the pontiff said in an address to a new group of envoys to the Holy See.
Cuba, the last open wound of the Cold War, has been a focal point for Vatican diplomats ever since Fidel Castro grabbed power in 1959, restricting Church activities in what was a deeply Catholic country. The Vatican has always opposed the U.S. embargo, for example, and both John Paul and Benedict visited the island and met Fidel Castro. One secretary of state under the Polish John Paul was a Latin Americanist who had previously served in Chile.
Yet never have the Vatican's top echelons had such combined expertise in the region. In addition to Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who served in Venezuela, the facilitators included two Vatican officials who have served as diplomats in Havana: Deputy Secretary of State Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu and deputy foreign minister Monsignor Antoine Camillieri.
The Vatican's current "knowledge of Cuba is extensive, second to none to any senior chancellery in the world," said Nigel Baker, British ambassador to the Vatican, who also served in Cuba between 2003 and 2006.
DIALOGUES WITH CASTRO
After Pope John Paul visited Cuba in 1998, Francis, who was then a bishop, wrote a book called "Dialogues between John Paul and Fidel Castro" which touched on themes such as family, education, poverty and political ideologies on the island.
For Parolin, 59, experience with Cuban diplomacy passed via Venezuela. When he served as the Vatican's nunzio, or ambassador, in Venezuela, Parolin worked to rebuild relations between the Holy See and late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was a key ally of Fidel Castro's.
The negotiations that led to Wednesday's deal were already well underway last March when U.S. President Barack Obama visited the pope and discussed Cuba.
Francis, aware that Obama was considering a change in policy toward Cuba, reached out to the president, a senior official in Washington said. A personal appeal by the pope is a rare occurrence, and it gave greater momentum to the talks.
The mediation, which also involved Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, according to U.S. officials, moved into high gear last summer when the pope sent personal letters to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
The pontiff "invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties," the Vatican said in a statement on Wednesday after the breakthrough was announced in Washington and Havana.
In October, the Vatican hosted a meeting between American and Cuban delegations that officials say paved the way for Wednesday’s announcement.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Janet McBride)