The first South American Pope played a key role in secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba that led to the surprise announcement in December that they would seek to restore diplomatic ties after more than 50 years of tensions.
Castro, who was accompanied by his foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, was due to hold a “strictly private” meeting with the pontiff in a small room adjoining the Paul VI Audience Hall, where large gatherings are held in the Vatican.
Pope Francis arrived 10 minutes ahead of Castro, while a dozen uniformed Swiss Guards stood to attention in front of the building when the limousine bearing the Cuban flag arrived.
The Holy See has said the Argentine Pope personally mediated between the two sides, and the Vatican hosted delegations from the two countries in October. US theologian Miguel Diaz, a former ambassador to the Holy See, said Francis would reprise the words of Polish Pope John Paul II, who made a historic first papal visit to Cuba in 1998.
“Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba,” John Paul II urged during the visit, when he was accompanied by Jorge Bergoglio, then auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and today Pope Francis.
The Pope will “certainly reiterate” John Paul II’s urging “now that Cuba is trying to step up its involvement in the economic world and international relations,” Diaz told the Italian news agency Adnkronos.
Castro’s stop at the Holy See, announced only on Tuesday, follows a visit to Russia, where the Cuban leader attended a Second World War victory parade on Saturday.
The Vatican announced last month that Francis will visit Cuba in September, only the third pontiff to do so after John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012.