POLITICS

First U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years faces tough fight in Senate

Jeffrey DeLaurentis in a Jan. 18, 2016, file photo.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis in a Jan. 18, 2016, file photo.  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his choice for the first U.S. ambassador in Cuba in more than 50 years, setting up a possible and tough fight with U.S. senators who need to confirm the new post.

Obama called the naming of an ambassador a "common-sense" step toward more productive relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He said career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who is currently serving as the top diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Havana and was “vital” throughout the normalization process, is the best person for the job. 

"Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government," he said in a statement that called attention to DeLaurentis' extensive experience in Cuba and Latin America. "We only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador."

However, several congressional critics including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – both with roots in Cuba – have vowed to block any ambassador nomination, citing a lack of progress on democracy and human rights on the island. It will be a touch for the White House to win before Obama’s term ends in January.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro surprised the world in December 2014 by announcing that the one-time foes had agreed, after secret negotiations, to restore diplomatic relations, including reopening embassies in each other's countries. The U.S. and Cuba severed diplomatic ties in 1961 amid the Cold War.

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Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, Jose R. Cabanas, was given the rank of ambassador last year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and foreign operations, argued for DeLaurentis' confirmation.

"The Cuban people have their ambassador in Washington. The American people need their ambassador in Havana," Leahy said in a statement.

Since diplomatic relations were re-established on July 20, 2015, DeLaurentis has led a series of negotiations with Cuba on topics ranging from human rights to the billions of dollars in U.S. claims against Cuba for properties that were confiscated during the country's revolution in 1959.

Even if ultimately unsuccessful, the nomination of a U.S. ambassador could provide a boost to the Obama administration's final months of negotiations with Cuba, a country highly attuned to the degree of respect it feels it is receiving from the U.S.

Earlier this year, Obama visited Cuba with his wife and daughters. During the brief visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president in nearly seven decades, Obama met with Castro and attended a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball. He also addressed the Cuban people.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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