A relationship forged on Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s first visit to Cuba some 15 years ago helped the Vermont Democrat take an unexpected step in support of the White House’s efforts to bring home Alan Gross and re-establish diplomatic relations with the island nation.
A clandestine visit and subsequent message-passing with Pope Francis might sound like the makings of a spy novel, but both actually happened. And a congressional delegation, the first official trip to Cuba since the Obama administration’s December policy change announcement, got to hear a firsthand account from the man at the heart of the dealings.
The six American lawmakers in Cuba over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend made a point of stopping by the residence of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played an integral, behind-the-scenes role in bringing Pope Francis into the talks between the two countries.
Leahy, his longtime foreign policy adviser, Tim Rieser, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin detailed to CQ Roll Call in separate interviews the importance of the trip, and how things went down.
"When we were doing all of these kind of secret negotiations and meetings — I was having them in New York, others were having them in Canada — we were using Cardinal Ortega to get things to the pope and then a letter back from the pope to President [Barack] Obama," Leahy said.
By his tally, the CODEL Leahy led in Cuba was his fifth trip there. That doesn’t count the 31 minutes he and a couple other members of Congress spent on the ground last month to retrieve Gross, an imprisoned aid worker whose release on humanitarian grounds had become a precondition to progressing the talks.
Leahy, an avid photographer, said he was able to steal a few minutes on the busy trip to walk around a bit. For the first time, he saw a few American flags hanging in shops and on pedicabs alongside Mexican and Canadian ones. A local approached with no apprehension to ask whether the senator knew his relative in Chicago, the kind of humorous encounter Leahy had rarely experienced on past visits.
The longtime top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee for State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs was delighted by it all. While any potential major changes will be slow to come, it was the early result he’d hoped to see as one of the top congressional backers of changing the 52-year-old policy toward Cuba and pursuing an end to Gross’ imprisonment.
As Obama and senior administration officials revealed on Dec. 17, in the hours after Gross was freed, the Vatican hosted the final talks between the two countries, and Francis made a direct appeal to Obama about Cuba during the president's papal get-together in Italy last March, and in an ensuing letter.
Leahy had written a letter to Ortega just prior to that meeting, Rieser told CQ Roll Call. The senator asked the cardinal to convey Leahy’s request to Pope Francis, with whom Ortega is close. He was asking the pontiff to raise with Obama the need to resolve the cases of Gross and the Cuban prisoners being held in the United States, as well as to help advance the prospects of repairing the relationship between the two countries.
Despite the oddity of a U.S. senator asking an outsider to convey a message to the president, it was an effort by Leahy to both further encourage the White House to move forward and to attempt to strengthen the administration’s case. And Leahy’s request was indeed passed on to the pope, said Rieser, whose own efforts in the long process, including his regular phone calls with Gross, have been reported .
"Sen. Leahy was talking to the president — I was talking to his staff — and he was urging them to resolve the prisoners’ cases,” Rieser said. “But in this instance he was also urging somebody else — the pope — to make the same case to the president. Who better than Pope Francis to speak with authority as a Latin-American himself, and someone who is immensely popular around the world. He clearly has an interest in reconciliation between the United States and Cuba.”
As senior administration officials said in December, the White House already had initiated talks with Cuba by the time Obama visited the Vatican. “[B]ut Pope Francis then decided to make a personal appeal, which is very rare,” one official said then. “We haven’t received communications like this from the pope that I’m aware of other than this instance.”
Ortega also acted as an intermediary between the two countries. He visited Washington, D.C., at one point to deliver a message from the Cuban government.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, set up an event at Georgetown University to deflect any potential suspicion about Ortega’s visit, said Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who fought for Gross' release alongside Leahy over the past few years and was part of the most recent CODEL.
“The message was hand delivered as promised,” Durbin, who met Ortega two years ago while visiting Gross in Cuba, told CQ Roll Call. “He played an important role. ... I’m very proud of the pope and Vatican and Cardinal McCarrick, Cardinal Ortega. They facilitated a dialogue that might not have otherwise happened.”
The CODEL also included visits with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuban dissidents and with the former Cuban minister of culture. Also on the trip were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
While visiting Ortega in Havana, the traveling lawmakers thanked him for his role and were able to hear his account firsthand.
“It seems like he hasn’t changed a bit,” Leahy said of the 78-year-old Cuban cardinal, four years his senior. “I’d love to say I haven’t, but I probably got a little bit older. We were going to stop by, make a courtesy call for a few minutes. We were in there an hour and a half, two hours. It was fascinating.
“I think everybody considered that one of the highlights of the whole time,” he added, “just hearing how he did all this.”
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