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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will not send a presidential delegation to Cuba for communist leader Fidel Castro's memorial service, the White House said on Tuesday, reflecting the tortuous history of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Instead, Ben Rhodes, an aide to President Barack Obama who conducted 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the 2014 U.S.-Cuban rapprochement, and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the senior U.S. diplomat in Havana, will represent the United States.
The choice reflects a White House desire to acknowledge the history of U.S.-Cuban enmity as well as Obama's normalization of relations with Cuba, a policy that could be tempered or reversed when U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
"There are many aspects of the U.S.- Cuba relationship that were characterized by a lot of conflict and turmoil, not just during the Castro regime," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, citing U.S. concerns about Cuban respect for human rights.
Earnest also accentuated the positive, noting that Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser who was already scheduled to be in Havana for meetings, "played a leading role in crafting the normalization policy" with Cuba.
Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.
Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 as Cuba steered a leftist course that turned the island, which lies just 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida, into a close ally of the former Soviet Union.
The decision not to send a presidential delegation may also aim to avoid criticism from opponents of rapprochement, which included last year's formal restoration of diplomatic ties.
"Given the ugly history of U.S. relations with Fidel Castro, it is not surprising that President Obama has decided not to send a presidential delegation," said Ted Piccone, a Latin America analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank.
"Given President-elect Trump’s threat to reverse the opening to Cuba, this may be the Obama administration’s last and best opportunity to convey to the highest levels of the current Cuban leadership the urgency of accomplishing as much as possible before Trump enters the White House," Piccone added.
Reporting by Eric Walsh, Roberta Rampton and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler