Obama Nominates First Cuba Ambassador Since 1961

Obama Nominates First Cuba Ambassador Since 1961
Photo: Bryan Bedder/Stringer/Getty Images
Jeffrey DeLaurentis has served as chief of mission in Havana since mid-2014 even as the U.S. and Cuba formally re-established embassies last year.

With his time in office waning, President Barack Obama launched a final offensive to advance his policy of normalization and engagement with Cuba. On Tuesday, he formally nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be U.S. ambassador to Havana.

"The appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries," Obama affirmed in a White House statement. "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."

The United States has not had an official ambassador in Havana since late 1960, when the Eisenhower administration recalled Philip Bonsal as the CIA covertly prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion. The U.S. broke relations with Cuba in early 1961.

A respected career diplomat, DeLaurentis has served as chief of mission in Havana since mid-2014 even as the two nations formally re-established embassies last year. Before his most recent tour of duty as the top U.S representative in Cuba, he served as a consular officer at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana in the early 1990s, and returned as political economics officer between 1999 and 2002.

His formal nomination sets the stage for a direct confrontation between the White House and the Republican controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Obama's policy of engagement with Cuba, in which DeLaurentis has played a key role over the last two years.

Indeed, should the Senate hold confirmation hearings before the presidential election on November 8, the political debate over Obama's Cuba policy could become an election-year issue in the already contentious campaign. During a rally in the swing state of Florida earlier this month, Donald Trump denounced the administration's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba as "one-sided" and threatened to reverse the advances in relations, if elected. "All of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them," Trump said. "And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands."

Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called for lifting the trade embargo against Cuba.

Yesterday, White House officials moved to reach out to the press and political pundits to underscore their effort to nominate DeLaurentis and strengthen engagement with Cuba. In a phone call, Mark Feierstein, National Security Council special assistant to the President and senior director for Western hemisphere affairs, said that the nomination should "be seen as a signal" of Obama's commitment to use his remaining time in office to "advance the policy toward irreversibility." Feierstein promised the White House would undertake "lots of actions" on Cuba before Obama left office.