POLITICS

Opening of embassy in Cuba sets up showdown over U.S. ambassador

HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 25: Flag poles are seen in front of the United States Interests Section as Cuba and the U.S. governments prepare for the second round of discussions to restore diplomatic relations on February 25, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Among the discussions scheduled for Friday will be converting the Interests Section back to a U.S. Embassy. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

HAVANA, CUBA - FEBRUARY 25: Flag poles are seen in front of the United States Interests Section as Cuba and the U.S. governments prepare for the second round of discussions to restore diplomatic relations on February 25, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Among the discussions scheduled for Friday will be converting the Interests Section back to a U.S. Embassy. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

The recent announcement that the United States and Cuba plan to restore full diplomatic relations April 10th is setting up a battle between President Barack Obama and Congress over whom – if anyone – will be the communist island’s first ambassador in over 50 years.

The ambassador issue has been one of most divisive topics inside the Washington Beltway since Obama announced last December that the U.S. and Cuba were working on restoring relations – with the president pushing ahead with plans as anti-Castro lawmakers in Congress threaten to block the appointment of any ambassador to Havana. The question that remains to be answered is: When the U.S. and Cuba officially restore diplomatic ties next month, will the newly reopened embassy have an ambassador in the office?

The answer: Yes, no and sort of.

While lawmakers opposed to loosening Washington's strict stance toward the communist island,  such as New Jersey's Sen. Robert Menendez and Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, are likely to put a halt to any quick approval of an ambassador in Havana, the embassy will still have a chief of the mission – just as the current U.S. Interests Section in the country does. Except now this post will come with all the weight and power that an ambassador does, minus the title.

"The chief of mission will have expanded powers and be able to have better access to members of the Cuban government more than they were in the past," Geoff Thale, the program director of the Washington Office on Latin America, told Fox News Latino.

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The current chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, is expected to keep his post at least until the end of the Obama administration. But whoever is nominated to be ambassador to Cuba will face a tough uphill battle in a Republican-controlled Congress already smarting from Obama overstepping them on issues such as immigration and nuclear diplomacy.

As soon as Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations, Rubio said he would block a proposed American ambassador in Havana. In January, Menendez added that while Congress can do little to prevent the Obama administration from shifting the existing interests section in Cuba into an embassy, what Congress can do is refuse to confirm an ambassador.

"All these things the president is doing unilaterally," Susan K. Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, told Fox News Latino. "It's understandable that Congress feels slighted and ignored."

Purcell added: "There are significant numbers of senators who are not so sure that we should be pursuing the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba at all."

Congressional concerns aside, however, the Obama administration and the Castro government appear to be going full steam ahead in restoring diplomatic relations and a major part of that is revamping their embassies in the respective countries.

A six-story, concrete and glass structure just off Havana's famed Malecón esplanade, the U.S. Interest Section was the former U.S. embassy and has been minimally staffed since the U.S. embargo soured relations between the countries in 1961.

With the restoration of ties, both sides are hopeful of lifting caps on Cuban and U.S. diplomatic staff and limits on their movements outside Havana and Washington – two talking points currently being discussed. Currently, Cuban consular staff cannot leave the Washington Beltway without State Department permission and U.S. consular staff cannot leave Havana without permission from Cuban officials.

The normalization of relations would also allow the U.S. to renovate the aging building and have U.S. security posted around the building, replacing Cuban police. And in maybe the most symbolic move, the U.S. government would want to put up a new sign on the building – directly across from Havana's José Martí Anti-Imperialist Plaza.

One area where the U.S. would like to bump up its presence in the country is in expanding its regional security office on the island.

For decades, Cuban authorities have worked hand-in-hand with their U.S. counterparts to alert them to everything from fast boats carrying drugs to the remote islands between the two countries to tanker ships covertly trafficking cocaine to Europe. But the U.S. would like to make it easier for American officials to work with Cuban authorities to track down criminals fleeing to Cuba to escape charges such as Medicaid fraud and kidnapping.

"Right now it's a very complicated process that requires approval from high-up, you can't just schedule a meeting for next Tuesday," Thale said. "The new changes could ease the diplomatic paperwork."

The U.S. and Cuba held their first round of talks in Havana in January and the second round was held in Washington last month. While the first rounds each lasted a day and saw negotiators routinely issuing updates on progress, this week's is being held without a finishing date or any scheduled statements to the press.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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