MIAMI — After years of relatively non-existent cultural exchanges between the US and Cuba, the US Embassy in Havana has been organizing events, sometimes in collaboration with the Cuban government. Along with recent meetings between the two governments and delegations traveling to the island, a modest change in the relationship has emerged.

A recent event, featuring American singer-songwriter Tonya Boyd-Cannon, was held in conjunction with the Cuban Ministry of Culture. Documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter visited Havana in February for a series of exchanges with Cuban filmmakers. Porter’s visit, which was sponsored by the State Department’s American Film Exhibit, was part of the Black History Month celebrations, as was Boyd-Cannon’s.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News: «As the embassy continues to expand its staff in Havana, we are developing public diplomacy programs to increase our direct engagement with the Cuban people.»

American jazz saxophonist Ted Nash performed at the Havana Jazz Festival in January and participated in a cultural event with music students at the National Museum of Fine Arts. Although his visit was arranged by a US-based foundation, he enlisted the help of both the US and Cuba.

«The support that we’ve had for this project has been groundbreaking in some ways, because we’ve had support from the highest levels of both governments,» Cathy Barbash, president of the Barbash Arts Foundation, told NBC News during one of the conferences. from Nash. events.

A State Department spokesperson said: «Cultural programs have been an integral part of our longstanding public diplomacy activities and are designed to connect directly with the Cuban people.»

Cuba’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the recent cultural exchanges.

Recent changes after tensions

The US Embassy in Cuba recently reopened visa and consular services, the first time since the US cut most of its staff in 2017 following unexplained health incidents dubbed «Havana syndrome». «. According to a recently declassified document, US intelligence agencies have found no evidence linking any foreign adversaries to the so-called syndrome.

But the embassy chargé d’affaires, Benjamin Ziff, told the Miami Herald in January that the jailing of hundreds of Cuban protesters as a result of island-wide protests in July 2021 is the “most serious obstacle” to further improving relations.

Throughout Joe Biden’s presidency, Cubans on the communist-ruled island have expressed dissent more than during any period since the 1959 revolution.

Weeks after Biden was elected in 2020, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture came under the spotlight when a bizarre protest spontaneously erupted outside the building with young artists calling for greater freedom of expression on the island.

Although the protest was a striking display of dissent, even more unexpected were the massive anti-government protests that erupted in July 2021, six months after Biden’s inauguration. In Cuba, strictly controlled, the protests were harshly received by the authorities. More than 1,500 were arrested and 675 remain in prison, according to Justice 11J, an organization that tracks arrests.

After the repression of Cuba, tensions between the two governments were high. Biden called Cuba “a failed communist regime” and the State Department issued strong statements condemning the crackdown. In early 2021, the Biden administration said in a statement that its foreign policy is «focused on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights».

After a lengthy Cuba policy review that concluded in May 2022, Biden expanded US flights beyond Havana to airports across the island, relaxed limits on remittances and restarted the family reunification program.

talks on migration between the US and Cuba resumed when a record number of Cubans left the island for the US. Engagement between the two governments on law enforcement issues also resumed in January with a US delegation. USA visiting the island.

A small delegation of Democratic congressmen traveled to cuba in December and met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Another Delaware delegation traveled to Cuba in January seeking ways to strengthen trade with the island. And the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment of Cuba recently signed an agreement with Ocean Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in the United States.

More changes?

Cuban officials have repeatedly called on the US to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; the other countries on the list are Iran, North Korea and Syria.

But Cuba has to make a significant move for the Biden administration to take additional steps, said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington, DC-based organization that supports engagement with the island.

“The Biden White House is not paying much attention to Cuba. They are almost totally consumed by the war in Ukraine and the deterioration of relations with China,” Herrero said. «For Cuba to capture the attention of the decision makers in the Oval Office, they will have to do something that furthers their (American) interest.»

Herrero, who has met with Cuban government officials, said he has pressed the issue of releasing political prisoners to improve relations with the US.

“Unless Cuba releases political prisoners, we shouldn’t expect the Biden White House to take proactive steps to improve relations,” he said.

Relations between the two countries have had ups and downs in the past decade. Then-President Barack Obama’s historic thaw in engagement with Cuba brought warmer relations, relaxed travel restrictions and the first US presidential visit to the island since 1928.

But the biggest diplomatic ties stopped shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017. He reversed most of Obama’s policies, drawing condemnation from Cuba’s communist government. The relationship deteriorated further when Trump withdrew most of the embassy staff that same year.

The US Embassy in Havana is planning more cultural workshops, speaker programs, business training, and other activities in the coming months.

Carmen Sesin reported from Miami and Orlando Matos from Havana.