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President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro sealed their landmark deal Tuesday in an almost hour-long phone call, capping 18 months of secret diplomacy spurred on by a personal appeal from Pope Francis to end Cuba’s isolation.

It was the first time leaders of the two nations had substantive discussions since the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, according to a White House official. It was not, however, the first time Obama and Castro had spoken.

Obama had shaken hands and exchanged brief words with Castro at a December 2013 memorial ceremony in Johannesburg for South African leader Nelson Mandela.

What the world didn’t know was that the secret negotiations had already been going on for much of that year. Obama authorized the senior-level talks toward establishing normal diplomatic relations in early 2013. He dispatched Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, and Ricardo Zuniga, the senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the National Security Council, to take part.

The effort was backed up with support from Canada and the Vatican, with Pope Francis playing a key behind-the-scenes role in bringing the U.S. and Cuba together, administration officials told reporters Wednesday. The Catholic leader made a personal appeal to Castro to release imprisoned aid worker Alan Gross and to Obama to free the imprisoned Cubans as a way to spur a broader rapprochement, one official said.

There were secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials, first in Canada and later at the Vatican, to work out the measures announced by the two governments, according to the official, who like the other officials, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters.

Four times last summer, Secretary of State John Kerry had unannounced phone calls with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez that focused solely on Gross’ release, according to a State Department official. In at least one call, Kerry told his Cuban counterpart that if anything happened to the ailing Gross, the island nation’s relationship with the U.S. would never improve.

Cuba policy came up in the first meeting Kerry and Obama had to discuss the prospect of then-U.S. Sen. Kerry replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, the State Department official said. Both said the existing policy was hurting U.S. interests, the official said.

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