New U.S. envoy with Cuba smarts

The United States’ National Security Council (NSC) announced this week that a State Department diplomat with Cuba experience will become the new head of the Council’s Latin America and Caribbean policy.

The NSC said Ricardo Zuniga, who was posted to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana in the early 2000s as a human rights specialist, will replace Dan Restrepo.

Restrepo has been President Barack Obama’s chief on Latin America and Caribbean policy since early 2007.

The NSC said he will quit as Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the end of the month, moving to the private sector.

In a State Department staff award in 2003, Zuniga was cited for his “comprehensive reporting.”

It described Zuniga’s work with human rights groups and activists in Cuba as “substantial.”

Restrepo, who is of Colombian descent, “made history in April 2009 as the first person to speak Spanish from the White House podium,” Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said.

With Restrepo at the White House, Obama relinquished former President George W. Bush’s tough policies on Cuba and returned to the warmer policies of the former President Bill Clinton era, arguing that engagement with Havana is more productive than confrontation.

Obama has lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban-Americans travelling and sending money to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island and expanded the opportunities for non-Cuban Americans to visit the island on so-called “people-to-people” trips.

But more gestures were largely halted after U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of undermining Cuban sovereignty by delivering three satellite telephones to Cuban Jews.

Some regional analysts have lauded Obama for his Cuba initiatives but condemned him for failing to lift the 50-year-old trade and economic embargo against the socialist country.

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