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Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL

US President Barack Obama nominated a career diplomat to serve as the first ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years as part of his efforts to open relations with the communist island.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis has served as the top, non-ambassadorial diplomat in Cuba since 2014 and done two previous postings on the island.

"Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and the appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries," Obama said in a statement.

Having an ambassador will improve relations with Cuba and make it easier to advocate for US positions, Obama said. DeLaurentis' nomination must be approved by the US Senate and is unclear whether the Republican-controlled chamber that has been cool to Obama's Cuba policy will do so.

Obama has increasingly relaxed decades-old prohibitions on commerce and travel with the communist island, with both nations reopening their respective embassies.

Obama and Raul Castro began the process of restoring relations in late 2014, but a trade embargo that can only be lifted by the US Congress remains in place. In March, Obama became the first US president in nearly 90 years to visit Cuba.

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