A State Department veteran of Cuba affairs, Ricardo Zuniga, will move over to White House to replace Dan Restrepo as the National Security Council’s lead man on Latin America policy, the NSC has announced.
Zuniga was posted to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana in the early 2000s as a human rights specialist and was cited in a State Department staff award in 2003 “for his comprehensive reporting … His work with human rights groups and activists in Cuba was substantial.”
Havana dissident Martha Beatriz Roque said Thursday he was “one of the best” of the U.S. diplomats posted in Cuba in recent years and added, “We all remember him with a lot of affection.”
Zuniga later served for several years on the State Department’s Cuba desk and became its acting head — officially Coordinator of Cuban Affairs — from 2009 to 2010, when he was appointed head of the political section at the U.S. embassy in Brazil.
Zuniga, who is of Honduran descent, will be the first career diplomat to head the NSC’s Western Hemisphere section since 2004. The post, which advises the White House on Latin America policy, often goes to political appointees.
An email sent to NSC staffers Wednesday said Zuniga will replace Restrepo, who has been President Barack Obama’s point man on Latin America policy since early 2007. He will quit as NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the end of the month and move to the private sector.
“’No one has done more in support of the president’s agenda to build trust and deepen our relations with the Western Hemisphere than Dan,” the announcement quoted Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough as saying.
It added that Restrepo, who is of Colombian descent, “made history in April 2009 as the first person to speak Spanish from the White House podium.”
With Restrepo at the White House, Obama abandoned former President George W. Bush’s tough policies on Cuba and returned to the warmer policies of the 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 island and broadened the opportunities for non-Cuban Americans to visit the island on so-called “people-to-people” trips.
But further 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 Latin America analysts have praised Obama for his Cuba initiatives and for refusing to overreact to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s many attacks on Washington, but criticized him for failing to pay sufficient attention to the region.