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New head of U.S. embassy in Cuba, Philip Goldberg, faces critical road ahead

Philip Goldberg, who becomes the new head of the U.S. embassy in Cuba on Feb. 10 will have a key role, as U.S.-Cuba relations sour and a new leader takes over the island in April.
Image: People talk to security officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana
People talk to security officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, December 12, 2017.ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

MIAMI, Florida — A new chargé d’affaires begins his role at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba Saturday, as relations between the U.S. and Cuba are at a low point since diplomatic relations were renewed in 2015, after more than 50 years of hostilities.

Just this week, the U.S. received a barrage of criticism for creating an internet task force with the aim of expanding internet access on the island.

According to a State Department official speaking on background to NBC News, Philip Goldberg is scheduled to assume duties as the interim chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana starting February 10. The news was first reported by Reuters on Feb. 7.

The Trump administration has taken a tougher stance on Cuba and reversed some of former President Barack Obama’s historic policy changes, including trade and travel with the island.

Goldberg will hold the position during the most important political transition in Cuba in recent history, when Raul Castro resigns. His new successor will be announced on April 19 and it will be the first time in over 40 years that Cuba will not be ruled by a leader named Castro.

The state department official said the move is part of the scheduled rotation of officials who serve in this position.

Lawrence Gumbiner, who served in that role since October 22nd will return to Washington D.C.

Goldberg would be of a slightly higher rank than Gumbier. He served as ambassador in the Philippines and Bolivia. He was also chief of the U.S. mission in Kosovo and assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. But during his time in Bolivia, a strong ally of Cuba, he was expelled for allegedly conspiring with opposition groups, something the U.S. said were false accusations.

Last year, relations between the U.S. and Cuba were further strained by a series of mysterious incidents that affected the health of 24 Americans affiliated to the embassy in Cuba. In response, the U.S. recalled all non-emergency personnel in late September. The U.S. also expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington.

The U.S. is still investigating a range of theories, including a viral attack, to explain what sickened Americans with symptoms that included hearing loss, nausea, and mild brain injury.

Cuban officials have denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the incidences.

In order for U.S. relations with Cuba to advance, “Cuba at some point has to show good will. Cuba has to show something,” said a Republican strategist who advises the White House on Cuba policy and wished not be named.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that advocates for engagement with Cuba, thinks it’s a good sign the Cuban government approved Goldberg’s visa and did so “in a fairly expeditious timeline, at a time when they didn’t necessarily have to.” He said it shows willingness on their side to continue moving forward.

Williams worries about not having a fully staffed embassy in April when Cuba’s political transition takes place. “Regardless of your view of the Cuban government, that is a mistake. We should have as many people down there as possible so we have a clear idea of what’s going on, even for our own selfish reasons,” he said.

The most recent rift between the U.S. and Cuba is the creation of an internet task force, which the Cuban government has formally protested, saying it is an attempt at subversion and a violation of Cuban sovereignty. Its government said it delivered diplomatic notes of protest to the Gumbiner, the top diplomat in Havana and to the State Department in Washington.

The group met for the first time on Wednesday in Washington and agreed to form two subcommittees to explore the role of the media and freedom of information, as well as internet access on the island.

Cuba maintains control over almost all media there and they have one of the world’s lowest internet penetration rates.

According to a statement by the State Department, they will “examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding Internet access in Cuba with the goal of helping the Cuban people enjoy the free and unregulated flow of information.”

The task force is comprised of agencies like the Department of State, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission, and Freedom House among others.

Those who support the task force say all they are doing is studying the situation in Cuba.

Jason Poblete, a Washington D.C. attorney with PobleteTamargo LLP, who specializes in export controls and economic sanctions, said this is just a continuation of a long existing policy of improving telecommunications, a process that started in 1992.

“We don’t want Great Firewall of China tactics to block access in Cuba,” he said, referring to China’s measures to regulate internet and block access to selected foreign websites.

He said Americans who travel to Cuba deserve to know whether Cuba is using the internet to monitor Americans.

But critics of the task force say this is part of a more hostile U.S. policy towards Cuba that is counterproductive. During U.S. détente with Cuba, the island expanded internet access and established Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces throughout the country. More homes have connected to the web as well, although prices remain prohibitively high for most of the population.

Goldberg, who begins his new role during a souring in relations, is expected to remain in the position for about six months.

The chargé d’affaires is a diplomatic official who temporarily takes the place of an ambassador. In the case of Cuba, the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Havana since 1960 when the U.S. recalled its ambassador as relations quickly deteriorated after the communist revolution. The embassy was headed by a chargé until 1961 when diplomatic ties were severed.

The U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations in 2015, but the embassy has been led by chargé d’affaires. The Obama administration nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a career diplomat, who became the first to head the Cuban embassy after more than half a century, but he was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“The biggest political transition in 60 years is taking place in Cuba in two months and we are totally blind to it,” Williams said.