CUBA-US RELATIONS

Obama appoints first ambassador to Cuba in half a century

Republican minority in Senate could still prevent Jeffrey DeLaurentis from taking up post

The US embassy in Havana.
The US embassy in Havana.YAMIL LAGE / AFP

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In a move aimed at consolidating improved relations with Cuba, US President Barack Obama has nominated career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis as the nation’s first ambassador to Cuba in 55 years.

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

The United States relaunched commercial flights to the communist island in August

DeLaurentis currently serves as the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Havana, which formally re-opened last year.

The appointment has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, where there are still opponents to further strengthening of relations with Cuba, particularly in an election year. Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of Cuban origin, have repeatedly criticized Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana. It would only take the opposition of one senator to paralyze the nomination.

Rubio blocked the appointment of Roberta Jacobson as US ambassador to Mexico after she played a key role in organizing Obama’s breakthrough visit to Cuba in March, when he became the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in a half-century. The last US ambassador to serve in Havana left the post in 1960 at the beginning of Fidel Castro’s rule.

In a statement Tuesday, Rubio wrote that “rewarding the Castro government with a US ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the president that needs to be stopped.”

“This nomination should go nowhere until the Castro regime makes significant and irreversible progress in the areas of human rights and political freedom for the Cuban people, and until longstanding concerns about the Cuban regime’s theft of property and crimes against American citizens are addressed,” Rubio added.

In contrast, Michael Shifter, head of the Washington-based InterAmerican Dialogue think-tank described Obama’s move as “intelligent”.

“Obama has nothing to lose at this point, because he is a lame duck president,” Shifter told EL PAÍS, adding: “He knows that the fundamental change in relations with Cuba will be the most popular part of his legacy.”

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio oppose Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana

“The Republicans will try to block the appointment and they will probably succeed, but they are in the minority, even among Republicans and Cuban Americans, and this could harm them in the November elections,” said Shifter.

Speaking on behalf of the majority Shifter alluded to, Jeff Flake, Senator for Arizona and an influential voice in the Republican Party, welcomed Obama’s announcement.

“Americans traveling & [sic] doing business in Cuba will be well-served by the prompt confirmation of Jeff DeLaurentis to serve as US ambassador,” tweeted Flake on Tuesday.

DeLaurentis has fought hard to normalize relations with Cuba, proposing a law to lift the US embargo of the island that the Senate has been debating for the last 18 months.

The embargo against Cuba, which remains in place, has cost Cuba $4.7 billion this year, according to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. World leaders speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last week called for the end of the blockade.

The United States relaunched commercial flights to the communist island in August and a JetBlue flight was the first of its kind to touch down in Cuba in more than five decades. US companies are keen to take advantage of the business opportunities there when the economy opens up.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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