The United States has announced it will send a delegation to Cuba next week to reinitiate talks between the two governments over law enforcement issues.
Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the US State Department, told reporters on Friday that officials will “discuss topics of bilateral interest on international law enforcement matters [and] increased international law enforcement cooperation”.
“This is an opportunity to enable the US to better protect US citizens and bring transnational criminals to justice,” Patel said.
The visit is the latest effort from the administration of US President Joe Biden to ease relations with the Caribbean nation as it experiences a severe economic downturn and record levels of people fleeing the island.
Relations between the US and Cuba have been strained since the 1960s, when the Cold War pitted Western democracies against left-leaning states supported by the former Soviet Union. Cuba removed its US-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959.
Tensions briefly thawed under Democrat Barack Obama, who became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba. The two countries reopened their embassies, and in 2015, Obama removed Cuba from a list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.
But Obama’s successor, Republican President Donald Trump, resumed restrictions against Cuba and returned the country to the terrorism list.
At Friday’s press conference, reporters pressed Patel on that designation, asking how the Biden administration could “justify” negotiating law enforcement issues with a country identified as a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
“There continue to be, obviously, concerns and human rights concerns that exist,” Patel responded.
But he emphasised the administration’s stance that improving cooperation would be helpful overall.
“Our belief is, is that establishing and increasing channels for law enforcement cooperation to better address transnational threats is not at the expense of the serious human rights concerns that we continue to have,” he said. “And we’ve integrated these human rights concerns and protections into all of our interactions with the Cuban government.”
The Biden administration’s law enforcement delegation will include members of the US departments of state, justice and homeland security.
While in Cuba, they plan to discuss issues like drug trafficking, migration and the return of Americans imprisoned in Cuba, according to a US statement.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration also reopened full visa and consular services in Cuba for the first time since 2017, when embassy staff reported a series of mysterious health incidents, which have become known as “Havana syndrome“.
Biden also offered Cuba $2m in aid after its government made a rare request for assistance in the wake of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall as a category 3 hurricane, knocking out power to the entire island.