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Raul Castro Thanks Pope for US Mediation Role

Pope Francis meets Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience at the Vatican, May 10, 2015.

Pope Francis meets Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience at the Vatican, May 10, 2015.

Cuban President Raul Castro visited the Vatican Sunday to personally thank Pope Francis for the pontiff's efforts to end five decades of tensions between the United States and Cuba, as the two countries resume diplomatic ties.

The Cuban leader met with the Argentine-born Francis for nearly an hour as the two men spoke in their native Spanish.

Francis, the leader of the world's Roman Catholics, was instrumental in the secret negotiations between Havana and Washington leading to the announcement in December that the two countries are taking steps to reopen embassies in their capitals and broaden economic links. The Vatican has said Francis, the first South American pope, personally mediated between the two sides and hosted delegations from both countries.

"I thanked the pope for what he did," Castro said as he left the Vatican. Later, he praised Francis for his "wisdom, modesty and all his other qualities."

The pontiff gave Castro a medal depicting St. Martin of Tours, known for caring for the destitute. Castro said he plans to attend all the Masses that Francis celebrates when he visits Cuba in September, ahead of a trip to the United States and a meeting with President Barack Obama.

Castro's trip to the Vatican followed a trip to Moscow where he was a guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the World War II victory parade in Red Square.

Last month, President Obama decided to remove Cuba from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Congress has 45 days to overrule the president's decision through a joint resolution, a move that Obama is sure to veto.

Congressional reaction to Obama’s move was mixed.

“Long overdue,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who ridiculed any suggestion that Cuba today poses a security threat to the United States.

By contrast, Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio issued a video condemning the president’s move. “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice,” he said. “It is also the country that is helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations. I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

For decades after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Havana supported insurgents and leftist movements in the Americas and parts of Africa. Analysts say Cuba’s foreign adventurism all but ended in the 1990s, although Havana continues to harbor a handful of fugitives from U.S. justice. More recently, Cuba has played the role of mediator rather than agitator, hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels.