Pope Francis says he is happy that relations between Cuba and the United States are improving, one day after the Vatican confirmed it had facilitated talks between the two countries. (Reuters)

It’s common for the Vatican to play middleman in some of the most heated global disputes. It did so in a Chile-Argentina border standoff in the 1970s, and between Britain and Iran in 2007 over hostages. But such papal diplomacy has taken place behind the scenes.

Pope Francis’s public role in the surprise thawing Wednesday of relations between Cuba and the United States was a game changer, one that Vatican watchers say suggests his desire for a more open, muscular role in world affairs.

The Catholic Church has long been a key mediator between the United States and the largely isolated, traditionally Catholic island of Cuba, gaining credibility by criticizing both sides and calling for dialogue. But it took a confluence of factors for decades of negotiating to pay off. They include Cuba’s recent loosening of religious restrictions, a pope who has focused on that country since writing a book about it years ago and the influence of a Cuban cardinal who had recently become more focused on ending the embargo.

“This pope is willing to lean further forward than anyone else has,” said Francis Rooney, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in the mid-2000s and author of “The Global Vatican,” which came out last fall. “I think we’ll see the Holy See be more out front, whether for good or bad. . . . He has a strong interest in propelling the Holy See’s diplomacy.”

The Vatican often intercedes out of public view in part to tamp down controversy about its policy of dialogue with any and all parties. On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is Catholic, criticized the pope for his role in forging the U.S.-Cuba agreement, reportedly saying he’d like “his Holiness to take up the cause of freedom.”

A difficult history between U.S. and Cuba
More than 50 years after the U.S.-imposed embargo, President Obama has announced an effort to normalize ties with Cuba.

(Kennedy Elliott, Julie Tate and Swati Sharma/Staff reports)

Spokesmen for the Vatican declined to return calls seeking comment, but its press office Wednesday put out an unusual — if brief — statement acknowledging the pope’s advocacy and the fact that Rome had hosted conversations in October.

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the statement read.

President Obama and multiple U.S. lawmakers Wednesday noted the Vatican’s involvement in 18 months of U.S.-Cuba talks, in particular over the five-year detention of Maryland contractor Alan Gross, who was released Wednesday in a prisoner exchange. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Vatican “has been deeply involved in this whole negotiation with the prisoners and played a key role.”

Miguel Diaz, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 2009 to 2012, said Pope Benedict XVI spoke to officials during a 2012 Cuban visit about relations with the United States, including Gross’s detention.

He noted that Benedict and then Francis elevated two key diplomats who are Latin America experts. Giovanni Angelo Becciu was the Vatican’s representative in Cuba until 2011, when Benedict brought him to the Vatican to serve as a high-ranking member of its equivalent of the State Department. Francis named Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who had been ambassador to Venezuela since 2009, as his secretary of state.

“You have two very astute and experienced diplomats [on the topic of Latin America] who are now part of the most intimate circles at the secretary of state,” Diaz said.

Rooney noted that Benedict had visited Cuba and called for dialogue, but “would never have taken this bold a step.” Benedict was criticized by some human rights activists for not meeting with dissidents.

Students in the streets of Havana celebrate the announcement by Cuban and American leaders to improve relations. (Reuters)

Then came Pope Francis, who like other Latin Americans was hugely impacted by the Cuban revolution, said Austen Ivereigh, author of the new Francis biography “The Great Reformer.”

Francis “saw the paralysis that resulted from the embargo, which had a deeply damaging impact on Cuban politics, psyche and economics,” Ivereigh said.

In 1998, Francis, then an assistant archbishop in Buenos Aires, was asked to visit Cuba with Pope John Paul II as part of the Latin American delegation. Later he produced a book about the trip called “Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.”

In the book, Ivereigh says, the pope-to-be mentions the embargo and is strongly critical of both “the anthropolitical error of socialism” as well as “the spirit that has driven capitalism — using capital to oppress and subject people.”

As of the 1990s, Francis “had in mind as a cardinal the issue of Cuba,” said Mario Paredes, a longtime top adviser to the U.S. bishops on Hispanic issues.

The Catholic Church plays a complicated role in Cuba. Sixty percent of the island’s population identifies as Catholic, but the government has repressed institutional religion. It restricts the staff the Catholic Church can send to the island, bans organizing and imposes its own leadership.

The coming to power in the last few years of Raúl Castro — Fidel’s brother — has opened the government’s stance toward the church, Paredes said. In the past five years, Castro has “returned to the church” more than 100 institutions, he said.

Paredes also described the close relationship between Francis and the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Ortega, nearing the end of his tenure, became more focused on finding “a new beginning” for Cuba. But the Gross case was a roadblock.

Ortega met twice at the Vatican Embassy in Washington with Gross’s wife, Paredes said. And Ortega lobbied on the case with Castro, Paredes said.

These church figures had also finally found a partner in the White House, Rooney noted.

Now that these years of behind-the-scenes talks have been revealed, what will Francis and his diplomats tackle next? How will the world react to Francis the foreign policy player?

John Paul II was extremely public in his fight against communism, as was Benedict about radical Islam when he gave a 2006 lecture that spurred deadly protests.

Ivereigh said that Francis is a “master builder of bridges” and that the U.S.-Cuba talks could be a model.

“I think Francis sees himself as trying to create space for peace and agreement where at the moment there isn’t. He sees this as fundamental to his papacy,” he said.