Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 19th 2014 Contents A29
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VATICAN CITY---Pope Francis
rightly got credit for helping bring
the US and Cuba together and free
US government subcontractor Alan
Gross. But it was actually Francis
predecessor, Emeritus Pope Bene-
dict XVI, who made the first high-
level Vatican manoeuver to release
Gross, spurred in part by an unlike-
ly group of papal lobbyists.
The American Jewish Committee
was one of several Jewish groups
that approached the Vatican in the
months before Benedict s March
2012 visit to Cuba to ask that the
German pontiff raise the issue on
humanitarian grounds with Presi-
dent Raul Castro.
"I was told to rest assured that
it would be and that it was raised,"
the AJC s Rabbi David Rosen told
the AP yesterday.
An official familiar with the Holy
See s diplomacy confirmed that
Benedict did indeed discuss the
Gross case with Castro during their
March 27, 2012, meeting in Havana.
That encounter, followed a day later
by a tete-a-tete between Benedict
and Fidel Castro, came exactly two
years before Francis and President
Barack Obama discussed the Gross
detention at the Vatican.
Soon thereafter, Francis wrote let-
ters to both Obama and Castro, ask-
ing them to resolve the "humani-
tarian questions of common
concern, including the situation of
some prisoners," and offering up the
Vatican as a facilitator to seal the
deal to restore relations, the Vatican
said Wednesday. The negotiations
were concluded at the Vatican in
October in the presence of Francis
top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin,
who until 2013 was the Vatican s
ambassador to Cuba s top ally,
Venezuela. Gross was released
Wednesday and returned home to
the US in a prisoner swap for three
Cubans held as spies, part of an his-
toric decision to normalise diplo-
matic ties severed during a half-
century of Cold War acrimony. (AP)
Pope Benedict helped
free American from Cuba
President Vladimir Putin has
sought to ease fears over Russia s
economy, insisting that the dramatic
fall in the rouble will stabilise.
Speaking at his end-of-year news
conference, which lasted over three
hours, he blamed "outside factors"
for the currency hitting an all-time
But he admitted Russia s central
bank could have acted more swiftly.
Russia is on the verge of recession
due to falling oil prices and sanctions
over its role in the Ukraine crisis.
However, the president denied pur-
suing an "aggressive" foreign policy
and accused the US and EU of con-
spiring to weaken Russia.
Putin accepted Russia had failed to
diversify its economy for the past two
decades and relied too heavily on its
oil and gas exports.
But he insisted the nation s currency
reserves were sufficient to keep the
economy stable, saying the central
bank should not "burn" its $419 billion
"I don t believe you can call it a
crisis---you can call it what you like,"
he told a packed conference hall.
If the economic problems persisted,
he said, the government would have
to "reduce social spending and future
But he added: "Our economy will
get out of this crisis. How long? Maybe
two years, but after that, growth is
Although the rouble strengthened
yesterday morning, it has taken a bat-
tering in recent days.
The currency s collapse came after
a drastic 6.5 percentage point rise in
Russian interest rates to 17 per cent.
Earlier this week, there were reports
of Russians flocking to the shops to
spend their cash before prices shoot
back up. Many were said to be buying
cars and home appliances.
President Putin gave a bravura per-
formance, speaking frankly without
notes, and accepting questions even
from Russian and foreign journalists
known for their hostility to him.
He wanted to calm fears about the
fall of the rouble, and about pensions
and living standards. At worst, he said,
the problem would last two years.
Putin estimated that Western sanc-
tions, put in place after Russia
annexed Crimea from Ukraine in
March, had accounted for roughly 25-
30 per cent of the rouble s troubles.
SALVATION ARMY CHRISTMAS
Scott Stevens, a volunteer with the JEA, helps collect the donations for one of the Angel Tree families
Tuesday, at Regency Square in Jacksonville, Florida. Salvation Army staff and volunteers distributed toys,
clothing, bicycles, stockings and other gifts to the families of thousands of children who are recipients of
The Salvation Army's Angel Tree programme. AP PHOTO
...Putin seeks to ease fears
over economic crisis
Russian President Vladimir Putin
gestures during his annual news
conference in Moscow, Russia, yesterday.
In this file photo taken in Havana on March 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI
meets with Fidel Castro. Pope Francis rightly got credit for helping
bring the US and Cuba together and free US government subcontractor
Alan Gross. But it was actually Francis' predecessor, Emeritus Benedict
XVI, who made the first high-level Vatican maneuver to release Gross,
spurred in part by an unlikely group of papal lobbyists. AP PHOTO
WASHINGTON---The White House
raised the possibility yesterday of a visit
to Washington by Cuba's President Raul
"I wouldn't rule out a visit from
President Castro," White House press
secretary Josh Earnest said, the day
after President Barack Obama and
Castro agreed to restore diplomatic
relations. Meanwhile, a Spanish-language
web page called "A new course for Cuba"
and devoted to explaining President
Barack Obama's opening to the long time
Cold War foe, was launched.
"President Obama is taking measures
to undo the failed policies of the past,
and begin a new chapter in US relations
with Cuba," the site says.
The text reiterates that for half a
century Washington had a "failed focus"
on Cuba, which "provoked the regional
and international isolation of our
country." The page also lays out the
measures announced by Obama,
including the normalisation of diplomatic
relations, the easing of rules on travel
and remittances, the granting of general
licenses for people wanting to travel to
Cuba, and changes in export-import
Cuba's president Castro could visit Washington
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