US-Cuba ties: Pope leads global praise for 'historic' US-Cuba rapprochement

Pope Francis led a chorus of global plaudits for Wednesday's breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, hailed as "historic" in Europe and South America and prompting celebrations on the streets of Havana. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Pope Francis led a chorus of global plaudits for Wednesday's breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, hailed as "historic" in Europe and South America and prompting celebrations on the streets of Havana. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Pope Francis led a chorus of global plaudits for Wednesday's breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, hailed as "historic" in Europe and South America and prompting celebrations on the streets of Havana.

In a personal coup for the pope, it emerged that the Vatican had played a central role in bringing together the global capitalist superpower and the tiny communist island.

The Argentinian pontiff sent "warm congratulations" to the former arch-foes for overcoming "the difficulties which have marked their recent history".

The Vatican said the pope had appealed to US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to end the standoff, offering negotiators his offices in October, paving the way for "solutions acceptable to both parties".

Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state now seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election, endorsed Obama's move.

"Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power. As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world," Clinton said in a statement.

"The goal of increased US engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people. And the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort," Clinton added.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that his country - which never broke off ties with Cuba - had also played its part by hosting the first secret talks in 2013, and welcomed the "overdue development".

The European Union, which is itself moving to normalise ties with Cuba, hailed the announcement as a "historical turning point."

"Today another Wall has started to fall," said EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini, adding that the 28-member bloc hoped ultimately to be able to "expand relations with all parts of Cuban society".

In South America, the detente elicited a euphoric response from leaders of the five-nation Mercosur bloc meeting in Argentina, who broke into applause at the news.

BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT

"We're living a historic day," said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, leader of Cuba's closest ally and one of its biggest benefactors, at the Argentina summit.

Maduro, whose forerunner Hugo Chavez was a close confidant of Fidel Castro, immediately claimed the thaw as "a moral victory" and "a victory for Fidel".

Praising Pope Francis, who turned 78 on Wednesday, Maduro noted: "It was with his help, and it's the best birthday present."

In Bogota, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos saluted "the audacity and courage" of the US and Cuban leaders in helping further "the dream of a continent where there will be absolute peace between nations and within them."

And Chile's Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz spoke for those in Latin America who were frustrated by the diplomatic divide, declaring: "This is the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas."

In Europe, Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the move was "of great significance" and seized the opportunity to urge Cuba to improve its rights record.

"This future can only be built on the basis of respect for democracy and human rights," he told reporters in Madrid.

German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the breakthrough "very good news in these times rich with conflict".

CELEBRATIONS, ANGER

In Havana's historic centre, overjoyed Cubans took to the streets to celebrate the news, voicing hopes that the breakthrough would lead to an economic revival.

"I have goosebumps all over," said 52-year-old cafeteria worker Ernesto Perez. "It's very important news that will change all our lives." But among Cubans in Miami's Little Havana, the reaction was one of anger and dismay.

Dozens of people gathered outside Cafe Versailles, a Little Havana landmark, to protest the rapprochement.

"It is a betrayal. The talks are only going to benefit Cuba," said Carlos Munoz Fontanil in Calle Ocho, the heart of an exile community that has long pined for the fall of the Castro regime in Havana.

Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington took a similar view and warned Congress would block efforts to lift the trade embargo.

"The White House has conceded everything and gained little," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, blasting the deal as "inexplicable".