Pope Francis has landed in Havana at the start of an historic 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States after serving as secret mediator of the rapprochement between the former Cold War foes.
Cuban president Raul Castro was at the airport to welcome the pontiff, who will be offering a show of solidarity with Cubans and delivering a message in the United States that Hispanics are the bedrock of the American church.
The visit boasts several firsts for history’s first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the US Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on US soil by canonising the controversial (and Hispanic) missionary, Junipero Serra.
Francis though will also be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, becoming the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years – a remarkable record for any country much less one with such a tiny Catholic community.
And he will join three of his predecessors in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution while more than 100 world leaders listen in.
It is largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never visited either country and confessed that the United States was so foreign to him that he would spend the summer reading up on it.
His popularity ratings are high in the US, but he also has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism.
That has endeared him to Mr Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.
But Francis has also been on record criticising Cuba’s socialist – and atheist - revolution as denying individuals their “transcendent dignity.”
Francis issued a personal appeal to presidents Barack Obama and Mr Castro last year to end 50 years of animosity, and later hosted the Cuban and US delegations to finalise the deal.
Francis arrives in Washington on September 22 for the start of the US leg of his trip.