Pope Francis, who has taken a public role in U.S.-Cuba relations, will visit Cuba on the way to the United States this fall, the Vatican announced Wednesday.
The United States and Cuba have been completing the repair of diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1961 after the Cuban revolution. Last week, President Obama backed the removal of Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The pope is expected to make his first visit to the United States as pontiff in September, stopping in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. He is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress, as well as the United Nations. Obama is also expected to host Pope Francis at the White House.
Pope Francis, who followed his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II in visiting Cuba and calling for an end to U.S. travel and financial restrictions on the nation, wrote letters to Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro urging them to settle outstanding issues and clear the way for a deal.
The pope has proved to be a force in foreign policy and global affairs. He drew attention for recently using the term “genocide” for the 1915 mass killings of Armenians, which drew the condemnation of the Turkish president. He has pushed for diplomacy in Syria and decried the Islamic State and the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. His forthcoming encyclical on ecology is expected to address the environment.
Before he was Pope Francis, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he was a prominent member of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America. That group, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advocated for diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
John Paul II made a historic visit to Cuba in 1998 — the first papal visit to the country — in a trip that helped improve relations between the church and the government. Pope Benedict XVI made a three-day tour of Cuba in 2012, celebrating a Mass attended by Castro. Castro declared that Good Friday would be a national holiday.
Opposition to a normalization of relations remains strong in Congress, where a vote would be needed to lift the American economic embargo on the island. Cuba has a small Catholic population (Catholics make up 27 percent of the country), but the Catholic Church remains important in Cuba, said Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Pope Francis forged a path for himself as the pope of diplomacy,” Chesnut said. “He really sees this as a finishing job.”
Cuba is one of the least Catholic nations in Latin America, where along with a sizable number of the religiously unaffiliated, both Pentecostalism and Afro-Cuban Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion, are thriving, Chesnut said.
“It’s probably more politically important than religious,” Chesnut said. “I’m sure there’s also hope for some Catholic renaissance as well.”
Many Mexicans could feel slighted by his visit to neighboring countries, Chesnut said. Some in Mexico took offense to the pope’s recent warning to Argentines to avoid “Mexicanization,” or further penetration of the illegal drug industry.
It will be strategic for the pope to visit Cuba first before he heads to the United States, said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.
“The relationship between the Catholic Church and government has had its ups and downs over the years,” Schneck said. “There’s a bit of Latin American solidarity going on in how the Cuban government has warmed to this pontiff.”