The conclusion of an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba has the White House treading cautiously, especially after bipartisan condemnation from Cuban-American Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez. The latter, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee until yesterday, accused Barack Obama of “vindicat[ing] the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” and of “set[ting] an extremely dangerous precedent.” Menendez is of course a Democrat and ostensibly an ally of the White House on foreign policy.

In anticipation, at least one official in the Obama administration has decided it’s better to share the credit, and preferably with someone whose popularity is much greater than Barack Obama’s. Hence, Charlie Spiering reports that the White House credits Pope Francis for brokering the deal:

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal thorough 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,” the official noted.

The Vatican also hosted the United States and Cuban delegations to discuss the political exchange of prisoners and “improving their relationship” going forward.

In March, President Obama spoke about Cuba with Pope Francis during his visit to the Vatican and has continued to work with the Vatican during the process.

According to an administration official, Pope Francis was “aware” that Obama was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the president. The official noted that the personal appeal was a “very rare” occurrence with the administration which lent “greater momentum” to the negotiations.

The Financial Times has a more nuanced explanation:

The potential rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which included a telephone call between President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on Tuesday evening, was brokered with the help of Canada and of Pope Francis.

The letter from Francis “kicked” negotiations “into a higher gear,” The Hill’s Justin Sink reports, but the majority of the diplomatic work took place in Canada, which already has normal relations with Cuba. Francis’ letter took the part of the prisoners involved in both countries, urging both leaders to find a way to free them and resolve their differences.

Buzzfeed also notes the Canadian connection, but reports that their source in the White House wants to stress Francis’ role:

The letter “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” the administration official said. The Vatican was the only government that participated in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Vatican officials were “in those meetings,” the official said.

Most of the negotiations took place in Canada starting in the spring, the administration said, but the final deal was hashed out at the Vatican, facilitated by Francis, who an administration official noted was “the first pope to be chosen from Latin America.”

Francis helped drive the deal, raising it repeatedly with Obama when the two men met at the Vatican in March.

“Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discussed,” the official said. The Vatican “welcomed the news” that the two countries were talking, the administration official said.

Politically, this is a smart move. Francis’ popularity is at a zenith around the world. In a CBS poll from March of this year, after the anniversary of his election to the papacy, Francis got a 46/3 favorability rating. That’s not a typo — it’s a +43 rating, with 50% undecided or hadn’t heard of him. Among US Catholics, it’s 68/1, or at least it was then. Obama desperately needs to have that kind of popularity rub off on his foreign policy, or at least buffer it from the kind of blowback the policy will get from both Democrats and Republicans in the Cuban-American community.

For the pontiff, this deal will testify to his influence and that of the Catholic Church. It’s also a signal that Francis will not hesitate to intervene in what had been his backyard. The first Pope from the Americas has resolved a half-century dispute among the Americas, and done so with what will be seen abroad as a relatively even-handed approach. Francis’ reputation and significance as a diplomat will grow with this episode — and so will Stephen Harper’s, for that matter.

Is this a smart move for the US as well? The economic war on Russia and Iran via the oil glut produced by OPEC has claimed a collateral hit on Venezuela, which until the Chavistas killed the golden-egg-laying goose kept Havana afloat. Nicolas Maduro is no help to Cuba and the Castros, and that means they need to find another patron in the region with an economy that can replace Venezuela’s. If Cuba begins to turn toward the US, that does give us some influence on the trajectory of Cuban policy, certainly more than we’ve demonstrated over the last 50 years. The Castros won’t live forever, and this does give the US an opportunity to influence the next generation.

Of course, that whole argument relies on the assumption that the US has a deft foreign-policy team at the helm to achieve those objectives. Right now, it looks more like the jayvees. Perhaps the next administration will be able to use this opening for real change in Cuba.