Rubio: Pope Francis Should 'Take Up the Cause of Freedom and Democracy' in Cuba

Catholic Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), while acknowledging the Vatican's role in helping free USAID subcontractor Alan Gross from Cuba, said he hopes the Argentine pope continues to press for full human rights on the communist island.

"The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history," the Holy See said in a statement.

"In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties," the statement continued.

"The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties. The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens."

At a press conference this afternoon, Rubio stressed that he's "not criticized" the pope's intervention in the release of Gross, who had been held by Cuba for more than five years.

"I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people, for a people to truly be free. I think the people of Cuba deserve the same chances to have democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he comes from, as the people of Italy have, where he now lives," Rubio said. "Obviously, the Vatican's its own state, but very nearby."

"My point is I hope that people with that sort of prestige on the world stage will take up the cause of freedom and democracy," the senator added.

"The Cuban people are the only people in this hemisphere that have not been able to elect a leader in more than 55 or 60 years. It's outrageous. And for us to basically -- for this government under Barack Obama to unilaterally give up all the things they gave up in exchange for nothing on the side of democracy, is unacceptable in my mind."

A senior administration official told reporters this morning on a conference call that the support of the pope "was important to us, given the esteem with which both the American and Cuban hold the Catholic Church."

"When President Obama met with Pope Francis, for instance, earlier this year, Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else that the two of them discussed," the official said. "So I would -- I would say that this -- particularly the, you know, the exchange and transfer of prisoners was finalized in that meeting at the Vatican, but we also were able to review the steps that we would each be taking with the -- with the Vatican, including the normalization of relations between the countries and the establishment of diplomatic relations. And the Vatican welcomed that news."