Obama’s historic visit to Cuba has been marked by a trip to Havana’s Catholic Cathedral, a move that will be seen as recognition of the role played by the Church in helping restore relations between the two countries.
Apart from a visit to the new embassy, the visit to the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception on Sunday evening, just hours after Air Force One touched down at Havana’s international airport, was the first stop in Obama’s three-day schedule.
Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, have been credited with facilitating the thawing of Cuba/US relations by arranging secret meetings between country officials at the Vatican in 2014.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, told reporters that Cardinal Ortega "was particularly helpful in supporting the agreement on 17 December to normalise relations".
During his trip, Obama is expected to meet with Cuban president Raúl Castro,
as well as join an event to promote entrepreneurship in a country that has struggled for many years in the face of US trade embargos.
In a speech today celebrating the opening of the American Embassy, Obama told Cubans: “So this is a historic visit, and it's a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals, to build new ties between our two peoples, and for me to lay out my vision for a future that's brighter than our past.”
It is nearly a century since an American president set foot on Cuban soil; diplomatic relations broke down after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Speaking to the Holy See’s news service in advance of the visit, Cardinal Ortega said: "This visit to Cuba is very significant. It has a practical importance because it will be of help to the development of the country, for the people".
But while many have welcomed the rapprochement, there remains uneasiness about Cuba’s human rights record. Just hours before President Obama arrived, several dozen “Ladies in White” human rights activists were arrested and protests broken up by police.
Human rights charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide has been increasingly concerned by the recent crackdown on religious freedom.
On Sunday a Baptist pastor, Revd Lleonart Barroso, was arrested just before the Palm Sunday service. He is the latest in a long line of Protestant leaders and activists who have been targeted.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas, said: “The Cuban Government’s decision to detain Reverend Lleonart Barroso, to put his wife and children under house arrest and cut off their communication, and the violent mass arrests of members of the Ladies in White and other human rights activists on the very day of President Obama’s historic arrival to the island is a slap in the face to the United States, as well as to the European Union and other countries which have been encouraging improvement in respect for human rights in Cuba. We are deeply disappointed at this turn of events, and call on President Obama to demand the release of these prisoners as a matter of urgency.”
The Pope visited Cuba in September where he prayed for greater freedom for the island’s people. The visit, which took place just before an official visit to Washington and New York, was seen as a sign of his desire to promote unity between the US and the Cuban administrations.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba during their papacies. In an interview with the Telegraph in September last year, a Vatican insider reportedly told the paper that Francis’ success in the detente should also be seen as the fruit of diplomatic efforts made by previous Popes.