While Havana welcomed the move, Republican senators pledged to block any ambassador nomination, citing lack of progress in democracy and human rights
Barack Obama has a “0%” chance of getting his nomination for ambassador to Cuba approved by Congress, according to the union representing US diplomats.
The president this week announced Jeffrey DeLaurentis as his choice to become the first American ambassador to Cuba in more than half a century, aiming to put the seal on his detente with the communist island nation.
But while Havana welcomed the move, Republican senators including Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas have pledged to block any ambassador nomination, citing a lack of progress in democracy and human rights.
Asked to rate the chances of DeLaurentis being approved, Ásgeir Sigfússon, spokesman for the American Foreign Service Association, said: “I would say 0%. With Marco Rubio on the Senate foreign relations committee, it’s never going to happen.”
Rubio and Cruz are both sons of Cuban immigrants. “They have sworn to do anything they can against the normalisation of relations,” Sigfússon added. “He might not even get a hearing.”
It is therefore a seemingly futile gesture on Obama’s part, Sigfússon said. “The president is exercising his right to be a late lame duck president trying to do everything he can. It’s symbolic. He drove through the normalisation of relations and gets to claim he’s the one who did it.”
The US and Cuba severed diplomatic ties in 1961, deep in the cold war. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba made a surprise announcement in December 2014 that they had secretly agreed to restore diplomatic relations, including reopening embassies in each other’s countries. Obama made a historic visit in March, and commercial flights resumed last month.
Obama called the naming of an ambassador a “commonsense” step toward more productive relations and said DeLaurentis – currently the top diplomat at the US embassy in Havana – is the best person for the job.
“There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance US interests in Cuba than Jeff,” the president said in a statement. “Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalisation of relations between the United States and Cuba.”
He added: “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. We only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador.”
On Wednesday, Gustavo Machín, deputy director for US affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry, described the news as “welcome” but said he will use a bilateral commission meeting in Washington on Friday to push for more.
“The Cuban delegation will point out the lack of advances in the economic, commercial sphere,” Machín said in Havana. “We consider the measures adopted by President Obama’s administration are positive but still insufficient and limited.”
Obama should also use his executive power to further narrow the trade embargo imposed on Cuba after its 1959 revolution, Machin said. “If the president could … allow investment in telecoms, why can’t he authorise investments in other areas?”
Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington, José Cabañas, was given the rank of ambassador last year.
But the battle over “our man in Havana” is already under way. Rubio said: “Just like releasing all terrorists from Guantánamo and sending US taxpayer dollars to the Iranian regime, rewarding the Castro government with a US ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the president that needs to be stopped.
“A US ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial and closed regime. 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.”
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the state department and foreign operations, took a different view. “[DeLaurentis] is a career diplomat who is universally respected by his peers, and by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, for his intellect, his integrity, and his thoughtfulness,” he said.
“The decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba has been widely supported, and the number of Americans traveling to Cuba is increasing dramatically. We need an ambassador who knows Cuba, who is respected by the Cuban government, and who will stand up for US interests and values. Jeff is that person. The Cuban people have their ambassador in Washington. The American people need their ambassador in Havana.”
Since diplomatic relations were restored on 20 July last year, DeLaurentis has led negotiations with Cuba on issues including the billions of dollars in US claims against Cuba for properties that were confiscated during the revolution.
The Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, said earlier this month that, if elected, he would undo Obama’s efforts at rapprochement unless Cuba permits religious freedoms and releases political prisoners.
After a logjam last year that left numerous would-be ambassadors in limbo, the situation has much improved with eight awaiting confirmation, of whom five are expected to be approved this week, according to Sigfússon.