Pope Benedict helped free American from Cuba

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How Pope John Paul II Paved The Way For The U.S.-Cuba Thaw

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis rightly got credit for helping bring the U.S. and Cuba together and free U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross. But it was Francis' predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who made the first high-level Vatican manoeuver to release Gross, spurred in part by an unlikely group of papal lobbyists.

The American Jewish Committee was one of several Jewish groups that approached the Vatican in the months before Benedict's March 2012 visit to Cuba to ask that the German pontiff raise the issue of the Jewish captive on humanitarian grounds with Cuba's leadership, The Associated Press has learned.

"I was told to rest assured that it would be and that it was raised," the AJC's Rabbi David Rosen told the AP on Thursday.

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Historic change in Cuba - +Joanne Chesimard US fugitive with asylum in Cuba
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Pope Benedict helped free American from Cuba
FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2014 file photo, Sen. Robert Menendez, center, looks on as President Barack Obama, center right, greets New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center left, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in Wrightstown, N.J. Christie says he disagrees with President Obama's decision to work to normalize relations with Cuba and wants the president to demand the return of a convicted cop killer before diplomatic relations proceed. Christie outlined his requests in a letter sent to the White House last week and released by his office Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. Joanne Chesimard was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, but escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where she has been granted asylum. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)
This photo provided by the FBI shows the different appearances of convicted fugitive Joanne Chesimard, in different years. Chesimard had been convicted of the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster and the wounding of trooper James Harper during a gun battle on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. In 1979 she escaped from the Clinton Correctional Institution for Women where she was serving a sentence of 26-to-33 years. (AP Photo/FBI)
FILE - A Monday, May 2, 2005 file photo shows New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, who was killed during a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. Sundiata Acoli then known as Clark Edward Squire and Joanne Chesimard were convicted of the murder of Trooper Foerster, but Chesimard escaped prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, living there under the name Assata Shakur. In a ruling published Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, a New Jersey appeals court has ordered the state parole board to release Sundiata Acoli, who was convicted in the shooting death more than four decades ago. He has been in jail since then and was denied parole most recently in 2011. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen, File)
This is an undated picture provided by the New Jersey State Police showing Assata Shakur - the former Joanne Chesimard - who was put on a U.S. government terrorist watch list on May 2, 2005. On the same day, New Jersey officials announced a $1 million reward for her capture. A member of the Black Liberation Army, Shakur, 57, was convicted in 1973 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster as he lay on the ground. She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba. (AP Photo/New Jersey State Police)
A poster with photographs of Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive for more than 30 years, is on display during a news conference giving updates on the search of Chesimard, Thursday, May 2, 2013, in Newark, N.J. The reward for the capture and return of convicted murderer Chesimard, one of New Jersey’s most notorious fugitives, was doubled to $2 million Thursday on the 40th anniversary of the violent confrontation that led to the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper. The FBI also announced it has made Chesimard, now living in Cuba as Assata Shakur, the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Black Liberation Army member Joanne Chesimard leaves Middlesex County courthouse after Superior Court Judge Theodore Appleby added a 26 to 33 year sentence to life term she is serving for the murder of a state trooper in New Brunswick, N.J., April 25, 1977. Chesimard, of Cuba, escaped from prison in 1979 and claims her innocence. (AP Photo)
Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, stands next to posters during a news conference giving updates on the search of Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive for more than 30 years, Thursday, May 2, 2013, in Newark, N.J. The reward for the capture and return of convicted murderer Chesimard, one of New Jersey’s most notorious fugitives, was doubled to $2 million Thursday on the 40th anniversary of the violent confrontation that led to the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper. The FBI also announced it has made Chesimard, now living in Cuba as Assata Shakur, the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A poster with photographs of Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive for more than 30 years, is on display during a news conference giving updates on the search of Chesimard, Thursday, May 2, 2013, in Newark, N.J. The reward for the capture and return of convicted murderer Chesimard, one of New Jersey’s most notorious fugitives, was doubled to $2 million Thursday on the 40th anniversary of the violent confrontation that led to the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper. The FBI also announced it has made Chesimard, now living in Cuba as Assata Shakur, the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
State Police Col. Rick Fuentes speaks at a press conference announcing the federal bounty for the capture of convicted killer Joanne Chesimard has been increased from $150,000 to $1 million in West Trenton, N.J. Monday, May 2, 2005. Chesimard was convicted of the murder of Trooper Werner Foerster, pictured in background, but escaped to Cuba and was granted political asylum after three gunmen helped her escape from what was then the Clinton Correctional Institution for Women in Hunterdon County in 1979.(AP Photo/Tim Larsen)
Attorney General Peter Harvey announces that the federal bounty for the capture of convicted killer Joanne Chesimard has been increased from $50,000 to $1 million in West Trenton, N.J. on Monday, May 2, 2005. Chesimard was convicted of the murder of Trooper Werner Foerster, but escaped to Cuba and was granted political asylum after three gunmen helped her escape from what was then the Clinton Correctional Institution for Women in Hunterdon County in 1979. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)
New Jersey State Police Superindendent Carl Williams, left, and Gov. Christie Whitman, right, listen as U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., addresses a rally at the Union Police Headquarters in Union, N.J., Saturday, Aug. 1, 1998. The rally called for the return of fugitive Joanne Chesimard, of Cuba. Chesimard, who was convicted of killing a state trooper in 1973, has been living in Cuba since escaping from prison in 1979. (AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross on the tarmac with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross boards a government plane during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross greets Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Az., Sen.and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Judy Gross greets her husband, Alan Gross, December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
A woman with a poster of the Cuban Five, that reads in Spanish "Freedom Now," celebrates their release, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba abruptly moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations between the two nations. The announcement was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for 5 years and the U.S. freed the three remaining members of the Cuban Five who were jailed in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Tourists ride in a classic American car on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba abruptly moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations _ a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations. The U.S. is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
A classic American car passes by a stall selling onions in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba abruptly moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations _ a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations. The U.S. is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: A Cuban man reads the Granma, a Cuban communist party paper, as he has his shoes shined, shortly after a live broadcast a speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Cuban school kids watch a live broadcast of the speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., with a poster of the 'The Cuban Five' hanging on the wall on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Cubans applaud and cheer after a speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., under a poster of the 'The Cuban Five' on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross greets Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen.and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross chats with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. as the final paperwork gets signed by a Cuban official on his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross on the tarmac with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – & not 1 second sooner
Alan Gross should've never been jailed. Obama’s unilateral move is propaganda coup 4 #Castro regime, may violate law http://t.co/tB9z0w6Pd0
Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – & not 1 second sooner
There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship. http://t.co/cjuXvwFET8 #Cuba
If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism: http://t.co/cjuXvwFET8 #Cuba
Happy for Alan Gross & family but dismayed Obama admin agreed to release Cuban spies. Legitimizes Castro regime's coercive tactics.
The President has done it again, bypassing Congress and making changes on his own, this time to Cuba policy. http://t.co/1nJHiM7LRm
“I am pleased #AlanGross will be reunited with this family after suffering years of unjust imprisonment” http://t.co/sQ9k5alj7s #Cuba
I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time.
I welcome the return of Alan Gross to the United States and celebrate his release from imprisonment
Since 1961, nine different Republican and Democrat presidents have opposed normalizing relations with Cuba
President Obama’s announcement is further evidence that his foreign policy objective is appeasement
The president’s action rewards the Castro regime at the expense of the Cuban people, who are denied fair elections and free speech
My statement on #Cuba & #AlanGross: http://t.co/96XNrJe2se
Diaz-Balart on Release of Alan Gross and Concessions by President Obama http://t.co/6mUiJr3g3B
Alan Gross. Back on U.S. soil. http://t.co/Ut5jvdQGg2
Alan and Judy Gross. Together again. Just before leaving Cuba this morning. #alangross http://t.co/cdIlIkYfF3
Great moment for @JebBush to condemn Castro brothers and stand for liberty and democracy abroad.
The Admin's decision to release three Cuban spies and seek normalized relations with Cuba is a dangerous mistake http://t.co/3jDourKGv1
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has a decades-long history. President Obama can gut the embargo, but he'll need Congressional approval to get rid of it.
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An official familiar with the Holy See's diplomacy confirmed that Benedict did indeed discuss the Gross case with President Raul Castro, and possibly with Fidel Castro, during the March 27-28 meetings in Havana. The encounters came exactly two years before Francis and President Barack Obama discussed the Gross detention at the Vatican.

A few months later, Francis wrote letters to both Obama and Raul Castro, asking them to resolve the "humanitarian questions of common concern, including the situation of some prisoners," and offering up the Vatican as a facilitator to seal the deal to restore relations, the Vatican said Wednesday.

The negotiations were concluded at the Vatican in October in the presence of Francis' top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who until 2013 was the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba's top ally, Venezuela.

Gross was released Wednesday and returned home to the U.S. in a prisoner swap for three Cubans held as spies, part of the historic decision to restore diplomatic ties.

Gross says he was only working to set up Internet access for Cuba's tiny Jewish community when he was arrested in 2009. But a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years under a statute covering crimes against the state. Cuba considers programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development project that Gross was contracted for to be attempts at undermining its sovereignty.

Rosen said as soon as Benedict's Cuba trip was announced, the Jewish community mobilized to lobby the Vatican on Gross' behalf, compelled by the sacred Jewish principle of doing everything possible to free captives, as well as a historical preoccupation with the detention and persecution of Jews for their faith.

Rosen said he spoke to and emailed officials in the Vatican secretariat of state and the Vatican's ambassador to Israel to ask that the Vatican raise the issue on humanitarian grounds during Benedict's trip.

"Nobody was asked to take up any principled argument as to whether what he had been accused of was justified or unjustified, whether he had been framed, but to raise it on compassionate grounds," said Rosen, who as head of the AJC's interreligious affairs department is one of the Holy See's key partners in Jewish dialogue.

During Benedict's Cuba trip, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked if the Gross affair had been raised. Lombardi said at the time that "requests of a humanitarian character" were discussed, but that he had no information about individual cases.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the Holy See's diplomacy publicly, said Benedict did indeed raise the case, saying the Vatican considered it a humanitarian intervention given Gross' deteriorating health.

While in Cuban custody, Gross lost more than 100 pounds, developed problems with his hips and lost most of the vision in his right eye.

Travelling with Benedict on that trip was Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the No. 2 official in the secretariat of state and former Vatican ambassador to Cuba, who is believed to have had a prominent role in the final resolution of the initiative.

"It's great that Francis gets credit for it, but many things were result of initiatives started by his predecessor," Rosen said.

While Benedict may have gotten the ball rolling, Francis sealed the deal using in part his familiarity with the issue as history's first Latin American pope.

"The pope has said it many times and I like to repeat it: When there are problems, you need to have dialogue. And the greater the problems, the greater the need to have dialogue," Cardinal Parolin told Vatican Radio on Thursday.

For his part, Francis on Thursday praised the "little steps" of diplomacy that can bring about peace.

"And today we're all happy because we saw how two peoples, who had been apart for so many years, took a step closer yesterday," Francis told a group of new ambassadors in his first public comments about the deal.
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