VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis, who played a role in the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana, is considering a visit to Cuba as part of his US trip in September, the Vatican said Friday.
The Vatican stressed that, while contact has been made with Cuban officials, it was too early to confirm whether the trip would take place.
“The Holy Father has taken into consideration the idea of carrying out a leg to Cuba on the occasion of his upcoming visit to the United States” between September 22 and 27, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement.
The 78-year-old leader of the world’s Roman Catholics confirmed late last year that he would visit the United States to take part in a Catholic Church congress in Philadelphia.
During the trip, he is also scheduled to speak before the United Nations in New York, become the first pontiff to address the US Congress and to meet with US President Barack Obama at the White House.
The first pope from South America played a key role in the secret negotiations between Washington and Havana that led to the surprising announcement in December that they would seek to restore diplomatic ties.
The Holy See has said the Argentine-born pope personally mediated between the two sides, and the Vatican hosted delegations from the two countries in October.
In the last few months, Francis has written to Cuban President Raul Castro and Obama “to invite them to resolve the humanitarian issues of shared interest, including the plight of some prisoners, in order to launch a new phase in relations between the two parties”, the Vatican said in a statement.
Cubans were elated at the news of a possible papal visit to the communist-ruled island that has many Roman Catholics. Pope John Paul II was the first to visit Cuba in 1998, helping to soothe tensions between the Church and the government.
“A pope’s visit is always a blessing, and a visit by this one is even more of a blessing because he’s the one who made it possible for Cuba and the United States to come to an understanding,” said Esperanza Miranda, 79, wearing a typical Cuban white dress and holding a cigar to take pictures with tourists in Old Havana.
While the government-controlled media did not report the Vatican’s announcement, the news still spread quickly on the island of 11 million people.
Miguel Valdes, an artist and self-described government opponent who sells his drawings to tourists, said he would like the pope to push for more freedom in Cuba if he does visit.
“I would ask him to look at and listen to the people, that he try to resolve some of the problem we have here, that he ask for more freedom and more respect for human rights in Cuba,” he said.