The US State Department has named Benjamin Ziff, a career diplomat who was in charge of the agency’s migration policies for Latin America and the Caribbean, as the new chief of mission for the US Embassy in Havana.
In a statement Monday, the embassy said Ziff assumed the role of charge d’affaires on July 15. Previously, he led a task force to coordinate the department’s migration policy and strategy for the Western Hemisphere. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Director of the Office of Central American Affairs, among several other positions at U.S. embassies around the world, including in Colombia and Venezuela.
The meeting comes as the island is at the origin of a mass exodus of Cubans trying to reach the United States by land and sea. According to the latest data, US Customs and Border Protection recorded 157,339 detentions of Cubans at national borders between October last year and June.
In recent months, the US Coast Guard has repatriated Cubans rescued at sea almost weekly. Since last October, Coast Guard crews have barred 3,516 Cubans from attempting to reach Florida.
Ziff replaces Timothy Zúñiga-Brown, who was appointed in July 2020. Zúñiga-Brown previously served as coordinator for Cuban affairs at the Department of State. Currently, the office does not have an appointed head. The previous coordinator, Mara Tekach, left the post in June.
Ziff will lead the embassy as Cubans endure one of the toughest times in recent history, with frequent power outages, widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic commodities, and increased government repression. against all forms of dissent.
“Unfortunately, we are facing the worst human rights crisis in 60 years,” Zúñiga-Brown said in her farewell speech during July 4 celebrations at the embassy. “More than a thousand ordinary Cubans have been arrested for peacefully protesting and demanding freedom, food, medicine and other basics.”
The Biden administration imposed several rounds of sanctions against officials and agencies involved in cracking down on anti-government protesters last year. But US officials have also spoken to Havana officials to resume migration agreements signed in the mid-1990s in an effort to stem migration from the island.
The administration also announced in May the lifting of some travel and remittance restrictions and the reinstatement of a family reunification program.
The State Department also increased immigrant visa processing at the Havana embassy this summer. The embassy remains a “partially accompanied post”, meaning only adult family members can join officers in Cuba.
Personnel restrictions were imposed after several diplomats fell ill in late 2016 and early 2017 in what became known as “Havana syndrome”. The incidents, initially labeled as attacks, are still being investigated.
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