On December 17, President Barack Obama announced his decision to begin a process of normalizing relations with the government of Cuba, which has been the subject of economic and other sanctions by the the U.S. for decades following the island nation's revolution in 1960 that put a communist government in power. Cuban President Raul Castro made a similar announcement simultaneously. In the case of Obama, he specifically lauded the role of Pope Francis for facilitating the meetings between the two countries. Pope Francis is known to have suggested swapping Alan Gross - an elderly American who had been imprisoned by Cuba for his activities on behalf of the U.S. for the tiny Jewish community on the island, in exchange for four Cuban men currently imprisoned in the U.S. on charges of espionage.
Following the announcements by the leaders of the U.S. and Cuba, the Vatican released a statement by the Pope. The statement said that Pope Francis, "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."
In the statement, Pope Francis noted that he had written to the respective leaders and invited them to enter into discussions, including on the release of prisoners and to "initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties."
The statement noted that it hosted diplomats from both countries at the Vatican in October, and that it "will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the well-being of their respective citizens."
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