December 17, 2014 12:36 PM EST The Vatican played a key role in securing the release of an American contractor held in Cuba for five years and in setting the stage for a cooling of relations between the two countries, officials said Wednesday.
Pope Francis encouraged the neighbors, who have not had diplomatic relations since the rise of Fidel Castro in 1961, to negotiate a deal, and even hosted secret talks at the Vatican between the two nations, Obama Administration officials said. Canada hosted many of the negotiations, until the final meeting at the Vatican.
Witness Cuba's Evolution in 39 Photos An old American car, long a staple of Cuban roads, sits along Guanabo Beach, near Havana. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A group of youngsters in Central Havana sit on a street corner to discuss the latest news of the Spanish La Liga football league. Their hair is styled like their idols'—soccer stars and Reggaeton singers. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME In route to his job as a welder, 62-year-old Carlos stops at a government cafeteria to buy cigarettes. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Cockfighting, a Cuban tradition, takes place in an anti-aircraft bunker to avoid the police. Fighting is not forbidden, but gambling, which is always present at the matches, is. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Antonio Perez Hernandez shows off his prize-winning rooster prior to a fight in Campo Florido. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Havana’s most famous street, the Malecón, as a cold front rolls in. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME At his teacher's request, Rodney Cajiga, gets his hair cut in Justiz, a small town east of Havana. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Corrugated zinc sheets barely cover a grocery store. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Jesus, a fisherman from Puerto Escondido, returns from the sea. “It was a good day, despite the cold front,” he said, displaying one of the fish he caught. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Roberto, 22, is a college dropout from the East, who moved to a small cottage in Havana to farm with his father, Jorge. “My wife got pregnant and I had to support her and the child. Here I have a chance," he said. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A pumpkin for sale, cut in half for clients to see it is still fresh. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Delvis Montero, 39, works seven days a week making charcoal and earns $100 a month. “I work hard so my children can go to school and never have to do this extremely hard work," she said. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Madelin, who works at a Havana boutique, hitchhikes to work each morning rather than taking the bus. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Around 7 in the evening, Cubans begin preparing dinner. Central Havana, usually crowded, look deserted. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME At night, neighbors leave their doors open to let the breeze in. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Yunier Utre, 19, lives in the Teodoro Rivero settlement in Jaguey Grande, Matanzas province. He works in the mango plantations from sunup to sundown. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Tourists relax on lounge chairs at Melia Las Americas in Varadero, which is next to the only 18-hole golf course in Cuba. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME The wiring for the electrical system at a tenement in Old Havana.
Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Old Havana at dusk. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Juan Lara, 72, takes his cows to graze roughly 10 miles from his home every morning. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Juan Carlos has been a fisherman all his life. Close to 70, he keeps this cottage in the Puerto Escondido fishermen’s village. “I have a real house in my town, 20 miles from here," Carlos said. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Jaguey Grande’s Library, where students from nearby schools come every day to do their homework. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Fidel Hernandez sets fire to the bushes around the fence he just installed to keep his goats enclosed. He has taken his grandson with him, as he says that he loves to hang around his grandpa. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME The growth of small private businesses, like this one in Pedro Pi, is a sign of changing times. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A woman at a telephone booth in Pedro Pi. There is only one phone in this farmer’s community, 12 miles from downtown Havana. Neighbors come to make their calls, get their messages and share gossip. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A government-run auto repair shop in Jaguey Grande. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A huge concrete school building. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Ricardo Rodriguez and his wife travel 30 miles every day to the town of Ceres to buy charcoal that they later sell in the town of Cardenas, near the Varadaero resort in Matanzas province. “The profits are meager, but we survive on that," Rodriguez said. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Aguedo Leon (far right), 82, goes to the cattle register in Campo Florido, Havana city, to report the birth of a calf. It is mandatory for farmers to do so immediately after the cow delivers. Failing to report a new birth can result in a $20 fine. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Outside Havana, an old American car with a new Japanese engine is used as a taxi. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME At the Puerto Escondido fishermen’s village, a welder repairs the carriage they use to move fish into town. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Riding on horse drawn carriages is still the main way to move in the Cuban countryside. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Ormiles Lores Rodriguez, 40, works as an accountant at the Grito de Baire farmimg cooperative. She says salaries have improved and employees get bonuses every three months if they meet their output quotas. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Dusk falls on Old Havana. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Despite its age, the driver claims his car can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour, thanks to its engineering that includes a mix of American, Russian, Japanese and Cuban parts. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Two young men wait to go out with a girl in Old Havana. "We dress to impress her," they said, "and we take pictures to our barber for him to know exactly what we want." Joakim Eskildsen for TIME Alicia, 8, crosses the street to buy candy in Patricia’s Cafeteria, 2 miles from Guanabo beach. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME An aging car drives through Old Havana at dusk. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME A woman prays to Yemaya, the sea goddess, on the Malecón, Havana's main esplanade. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
The deal to release Alan Gross was finalized in a call between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, but Obama noted that the Vatican was instrumental in brokering the make-up.
“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States, and also encouraging the united states and cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” an official said, calling the papal letter “very rare. … The Vatican then hosted the U.S. and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”
MORE: What to know about Alan Gross
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