Cuban President Raul Castro received a warm welcome at the Vatican today from Pope Francis, who played a key role in the breakthrough between Washington and Havana aimed at restoring US-Cuban diplomatic ties. "Bienvenido!" Francis said in his native Spanish, welcoming Castro in a studio near the Vatican public audience hall. The Cuban president, bowing his head, gripped Francis' hand with both of his, and the two men began private talks. The meeting lasted nearly an hour, as the Argentine-born Francis and Castro spoke in their native Spanish. As he took his leave, Castro told journalists, "I thanked the pope for what he did."
Castro had already publicly thanked Francis for helping to bring Havana and Washington closer together after decades. Later, Castro praised Francis for his "wisdom, modesty, and all his other qualities." Francis will visit Cuba in September en route to the United States. Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Castro "laid out to the pope the sentiments of the Cuban people in the wait and preparation for his upcoming visit to the island in September." Francis gave Castro a medal depicting St. Martin of Tours, known for caring for the destitute. "With his mantle he covers the poor," Francis told Castro, saying more efforts on behalf of the poor are needed. Castro's brother, Fidel, met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996.