Defying critics, Obama nominates Cuba ambassador

Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
Ambassador to Cuba: Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted on the tarmac by Jeffrey DeLaurentis in Havana.
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, is greeted on the tarmac by Jeffrey DeLaurentis at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Aug. 14, 2015. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Facing down congressional opponents of his historic outreach to Cuba, President Obama announced Tuesday that he has chosen highly respected career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the first U.S. ambassador to Havana in 55 years. DeLaurentis is currently the top official at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

“There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests in Cuba than Jeff,” Obama said in a statement. “Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.”

The announcement is certain to touch off an election-year fight in which the confirmation of DeLaurentis will serve as a referendum of sorts on Obama’s policy of engaging Cuba. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Cuban-Americans who tried and failed to win their party’s presidential nomination, have promised to block any effort to fill the post. They argue that the socialist government of President Raúl Castro has not undertaken the necessary economic and political reforms to earn such high-level engagement.

“We have such a basic difference on that,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told Yahoo News. “To us, the concept that it’s a reward for a country to have an ambassador makes no sense. On the contrary, having an ambassador gives you a higher profile, a higher-ranked advocate for what America cares about, whether that’s bilateral cooperation or whether that’s speaking out for human rights.”

Still, Rhodes acknowledged, “it will be hard” to get DeLaurentis confirmed. While a simple Senate majority is required to approve an ambassadorial nomination, an individual senator can by tradition impose an anonymous hold that can at least delay, and even end, prospects for confirmation. And there’s no guarantee that the Republican majority will even schedule a vote.

“We have no illusions,” Rhodes said. “But we feel that it’s important to validate the good work that Jeff DeLaurentis has done while also indicating that we think the norm should be that there’s an ambassador — and put the onus on opponents to articulate why it makes any sense at all to not have such a well-qualified person in the position.”

Barack Obama, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, left, and Michelle Obama during a meeting with embassy personnel in Havana, Cuba, March 20, 2016. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
The president and first lady with DeLaurentis at a meeting with embassy personnel in Havana, March 20, 2016. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Obama sent DeLaurentis to Havana in the summer of 2014, anticipating that what were secret talks with the Castro government would yield a deal to normalize diplomatic relations and expand economic and travel ties, officials say.

“We told the Cubans that at the time. We said, ‘We’re sending this person down. He’s more senior than we normally have. He’s an ambassador rank. He’s close to [National Security Adviser] Susan Rice, which mattered to them,” Rhodes said.

Obama and Raúl Castro shocked the world on Dec. 17, 2014, by announcing the resumption of diplomatic relations — including the reopening of embassies shuttered in the aftermath of the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power. In March, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba.

While the White House considered prominent Cuban-Americans for the post, finding a consensus candidate proved elusive. DeLaurentis proved himself the better candidate anyway, more than able to defend U.S. interests as well as forge relationships with the Cuban government and the Cuban-American community, people inside and outside the administration have told Yahoo News.

“A number of prominent Cuban-Americans volunteered to us that we if appointed anybody, it should be Jeff,” said Rhodes.

In addition to nominating DeLaurentis, the White House plans to use executive power to promote commercial and cultural exchanges while pushing Congress to act on easing restrictions on American travel to Cuba and prodding the Castro government to make good on promises of political and economic reform.

“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,” Obama said. “We only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador.”

The United States and Cuba had operated “interests sections” — a step down from a formal embassy — for decades.