"It is difficult" to return to the days of Obama with Cuba

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Things have changed since President Barack Obama implemented a policy to thaw Cuba and although some measures have been put into effect in recent months to bring families separated by the Florida Straits closer together, the United States does not see it as easy to return to those times of close ties.

“It's hard to go back,” said Benjamin Ziff, the US chargé d'affaires at the Havana embassy. “The world has changed from the Obama era and now we have to deal with the world today,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In 2014 Obama and the then Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the normalization of relations between the island and the United States, the beginning of a series of agreements that included the reopening of the embassy in Havana, immigration cooperation, academic and family trips, and sending remittances, among other things.

Throughout his two presidencies, Obama has used executive orders to improve bilateral relations and weaken the US trade embargo, which has been in place for more than six decades and can only be lifted by Congress. With the arrival of Donald Trump to power, in 2017, a large part of these measures were discarded.

Biden was vice president during the Obama administration and his arrival in the presidency renewed hopes in some sectors that he would return to the policies of that time. His administration has put into effect relief for the sending of remittances, more flights and humanitarian assistance to the island, but they are far from resuming the flexibility and rapprochement promoted by Obama between two historical enemies of the Cold War.

Ziff, who serves as the highest representative of the United States on the island, said that the measures adopted in recent months aim to improve the lives of Cuban families, but stressed that it is not easy to deal with the island's authorities.

"The relationship with the United States for historical reasons, political reasons, human rights reasons, is difficult," said the diplomat, who has been on the island for six months. "He would define US relations with Cuba as correct and pragmatic," he said.

For Ziff, "the change in Cuba comes from Cuba, from the Cubans, it does not depend on anyone else." He said that "the United States can support, can help, encourage, advocate, pressure, everything, but basically the future of Cuba depends on the Cubans."

After nearly five years in which the US embassy in Havana remained with a minimum of staff when the so-called health incidents and then the coronavirus pandemic were discovered, officials and employees returned to work in July 2022.

Consular services, which had been suspended since 2017, resumed in January, and the embassy is offering “hundreds” of appointments daily for immigrant visas, including those for family reunification, the diplomat said.

Talks between the two governments have resumed and the most important issue on Washington's agenda is human rights, after massive street protests in July 2021 that provoked a harsh response against protesters and opponents, Ziff said.

“That is our number one priority, to ensure that the Cuban population can have a future without repression and with economic hope,” explained the diplomat, who spoke mostly in English, interspersed with some responses in perfect Spanish.

He said it is very difficult to talk to the island's authorities about human rights issues. Even, he explained, when US officials have wanted to meet with political opponents, some have been jailed. He did not offer names, however.

The resumption of consular activities coincides with a historic wave of Cuban migration to the United States that led the Biden government to take measures to curb illegal arrivals.

In the last two years, US authorities have detained Cubans nearly 300,000 times on the border with Mexico, and thousands more trying to reach the Florida coast by sea. Some have been returned to the island, but the vast majority have remained under immigration rules dating back to the Cold War. That figure is equivalent to almost 3% of the inhabitants of Cuba.

As part of the resumption of dialogue with the Cuban authorities, the issue of illegal migration, a matter of national security for the United States, appears. For now, Cuba is not welcoming Cubans who arrive illegally into the United States back to the island, but has promised to do so "soon," Ziff said, adding that no date has yet been set.

"The lack of hope is what is driving the rate of irregular migration," said the diplomat.

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