ROME — Just days after basking in the support of white Evangelicals in a speech at the Faith and Freedom Forum in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump may be poised to create new tensions with a different sort of religious leader with whom he already has an ambivalent relationship: Pope Francis.
According to media reports, Trump will travel to Miami on Friday to announce a partial rollback of the opening to Cuba that was a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, among other things reinstating tighter restrictions on trade and travel. The setting is carefully chosen, as Miami remains a stronghold of Cuban exiles and anti-Castro dissidents.
The move likely will be justified on human rights and pro-democracy grounds. Aides caution, however, that the president has yet to make a final decision on Cuba, and plans for the announcement could still change.
Shortly after taking office, Trump ordered his national security team to undertake a review of American policy on Cuba with an eye towards undoing some of the openings under Obama, and is expected to package his announcement on Friday as a “promise kept.”
Assuming the president follows through, it’s unlikely to go down well with Francis.
When a restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba was announced in December 2014, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro thanked Pope Francis for the role he played in creating lines of communication, after writing both men to appeal for dialogue.
The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” a White House official said at the time.
In October 2014, the Vatican hosted confidential negotiations between the two sides that helped pave the way for an agreement.
Francis later visited Cuba in September 2015, immediately prior to arriving in the United States, a bit of scheduling widely seen as his way of affirming the opening between the two nations and encouraging the process to continue.
“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” Francis said in a speech on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport immediately after arriving on the island nation.
“I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world,” he said.
Francis’s top aide, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said on that trip the Vatican hoped the restored diplomatic relations would soon be followed by lifting the U.S.-imposed trade embargo on Cuba, which is the world’s longest-running such ban.
Given all that, it’s likely the Vatican under Pope Francis will not view a rollback on U.S./Cuban détente in positive terms.
The possible new tension over Cuba compounds other differences between the White House and Rome on issues such as immigration, anti-poverty efforts, and climate change, including the recent decision by the Trump administration to abandon the Paris accords which Francis and his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ helped to inspire.
The pull-out from the Paris agreement was described as a “slap in the face” to the Vatican and Pope Francis by Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Social Sciences.
Despite those flashpoints, Trump and Francis had a cordial encounter in the Vatican on May 24, stressing basic agreement on matters such as religious freedom, the dignity of human life, rights of conscience, and the importance of defending persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the new twists on Paris and, apparently, now Cuba, suggest that if Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican, what already promised to be a fairly complicated diplomatic assignment is likely to be even more so.