Tim Phillips and his conflict resolution group, Beyond Conflict, hang their hats in Cambridge, where on the north side of that fine city a great man named O’Neill once observed that all politics is local.
And so, for that matter, is all geopolitics, Tim Phillips has learned.
For the last four years, Phillips and his colleagues at Beyond Conflict have been traveling south, to Miami, to work on a beachhead of sorts, basically to prepare the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans there for the inevitable, the day that arrived on Wednesday.
“The idea was to talk about reconciliation,” Phillips said.
They organized meetings and conferences to talk about letting go of the past, about the idea that, as Nelson Mandela once told the chief of staff of the IRA, you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.
Beyond Conflict has done important work in divided societies, from Northern Ireland to South Africa, from Bahrain to El Salvador to Nicaragua. And they brought their expertise and their contacts from those places to South Florida.
Pat Doherty, who before he became a peacemaker in Northern Ireland was a bigshot in the Irish Republican Army, went to Miami to talk to the Cuban-American community. Roelf Meyer, who was the chief negotiator for the white minority government at the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, went to Cuba, explaining how he and the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa were able to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. Some Cubans traveled to Dublin to learn how the British and the Irish brought a peaceful end to The Troubles.
About a year ago, during a meeting in Washington, Phillips and others who were working to facilitate the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba were kicking ideas around. They felt like they needed to engage official Washington more deeply.
Bob Menendez, the anti-Castro senator from New Jersey, was being particularly unhelpful. Besides being the son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez is an observant Catholic, and so Tim Phillips had an idea.
“What if we got the pope to talk to Menendez?” Phillips blurted out at the meeting.
People sat up. Somebody mentioned the president was going to the Vatican in March.
Hell, Phillips thought, big things don’t happen if you don’t think big.
“What if,” he said, “we got the pope to talk to President Obama about Cuba?”
Like everything of any worth in Boston, it started with a phone call. Phillips knew that Cardinal Sean O’Malley was close to the pope. He knew that Jack Connors, the ad man and Catholic mover and shaker, was close to Cardinal O’Malley. He didn’t have a number for O’Malley, but he had a number for Connors.
Phillips said Connors reached out to the Rev. Robert Kickham, one of O’Malley’s top aides, and Kickham gave O’Malley a memo in which Phillips explained what he and his colleagues were trying to do. O’Malley, who travels to Cuba regularly, thought it was a good idea, and so did the pope when O’Malley talked to him about it in Rome.
Weeks later, Pope Francis and Obama sat across from each other in the Vatican, and now we know what they talked about.
Phillips said O’Malley stayed engaged as the months passed leading up to Wednesday’s historic breakthrough. When O’Malley went to Cuba in August to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega, he spoke with Cuban officials, Phillips said.
After that trip, O’Malley wrote optimistically on his blog that things were getting better in Cuba for Catholics and the church. But he noted that tensions remained over the imprisonment in Cuba of Alan Gross and the US holding of three Cubans convicted of spying.
On Wednesday, the fates of those men were resolved, and the possibilities in the future of two historic enemies seemed limitless. The reconciliation that Tim Phillips and his colleagues have been working on for years will soon be tested.
Cigars all around. Habanos, naturally.