The Ugly Fight to Be Our Man in Havana

The confirmation battle for the next U.S. ambassador to Cuba is going to be a blood bath. Can a low-profile career diplomat overcome the Cuban-American lobby?

A pedicab ("bicitaxi" in Cuba) with a national flag of the United States is seen in Havana, on January 7, 2015. Last month, the United States announced that it would end decades of estrangement and normalize relations with Cuba. Cuba's nascent private sector is bracing for an influx of visitors should the US embargo ease, but many businesses in the communist country appear unprepared for a torrent of tourists.  AFP PHOTO/YAMIL Lage        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
A pedicab ("bicitaxi" in Cuba) with a national flag of the United States is seen in Havana, on January 7, 2015. Last month, the United States announced that it would end decades of estrangement and normalize relations with Cuba. Cuba's nascent private sector is bracing for an influx of visitors should the US embargo ease, but many businesses in the communist country appear unprepared for a torrent of tourists. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL Lage (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

If anyone thinks Loretta Lynch, the nominee to replace Eric Holder as U.S. attorney general, is facing a bruising confirmation fight, spare a thought for the next ambassador to Cuba.

The Obama administration says it wants to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana by early April — an ambitious launch date that has triggered a flurry of speculation in diplomatic circles about whom the White House will nominate for a position that hasn’t been filled since now-deceased Ambassador Philip Bonsal was recalled in 1960 at the height of the Cold War.

Unlike with Lynch, who squeaked by the Senate Judiciary Committee with the help of three Republican votes, many inside the State Department wonder whether any nominee — however nonpartisan or highly regarded — will be able to survive the fire and brimstone of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, home to the two most pugnacious Cuba hawks in the country: Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

The upcoming battle places huge importance on the selection of a nominee who can navigate the treacherous confirmation process and begin implementing the Cuba rapprochement with the tacit backing of Congress’s upper chamber.

The White House and State Department declined to comment for this article, but a host of congressional aides and Latin America experts told Foreign Policy that one man is at the top of the shortlist: Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

A career member of the senior foreign service who has served in a number of overseas posts, including two previous jobs in Havana, DeLaurentis would not be seen as a political appointee and, in the event of a protracted confirmation fight, could simultaneously run the embassy as its chargé d’affaires.

“The logic in the department from my understanding is that DeLaurentis is a good choice for a couple reasons,” said one congressional aide briefed by administration officials. “He’s a career guy, and if you had a political person, there’s no way you can get them through, especially with Senator Rubio running for president.”

Rubio and other Cuba hawks from both parties are already gearing up for a fight. On Thursday, an aide for the Florida senator told FP that Rubio will “do everything he can to block an ambassador without fundamental changes in the regime’s behavior, including on democracy and human rights.”

Groups associated with the Cuban-American lobby, such as the Center for a Free Cuba, say DeLaurentis, if nominated, will be hard-pressed to defend the White House’s Cuba policy. “I don’t think DeLaurentis or the State Department was consulted until over a year after negotiations between the United States and Cuba began,” said Frank Calzon, the executive director of the center. “Now you’ll have a career person put in a position of defending whatever it is the president wants to do, which could be very tricky.”

Fortunately for DeLaurentis, he has been careful to cultivate an apolitical reputation among Cuba watchers and is widely respected within the State Department.

“My impression is that Jeff may be the one due to his good relationship with Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs,” said Peter Billerbeck, a foreign-policy advisor at Third Way. “They are managing much of the Cuba opening from the National Security Council; a career guy already in place would make sense.”

Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center, agreed. “Even with other great candidates, why wouldn’t we keep the guy who is already there and doing an outstanding job?” he said.

Two Senate aides involved in the issue also said DeLaurentis’s nomination is likely, but cautioned that no decision has been made yet and that the pick could go in another direction.

Others floated as potential contenders are Peter Quilter, secretary for administration and finance at the Organization of American States; Fulton Armstrong, a fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies; and Michael Kozak, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a vocal proponent of normalized relations with Cuba, was reported as a top candidate by the San Francisco Chronicle in January, but she has since denied those rumors on multiple occasions.

Another option for the White House is not to appoint an ambassador at all and avoid a confrontation with Congress at a time when other foreign-policy issues such as an Iran nuclear deal, an authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State, and Russian aggression in Ukraine are creating their own headaches on Capitol Hill.

“The easy option is to keep … DeLaurentis there as ‘chargé’ — a temporary designation that would come once the interest section is upgraded to embassy,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The White House would not rule out any of the above options. But its reform efforts are progressing more quickly than many outside experts expected since the announcement by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in December that the United States and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations after a 50-year freeze.

Last Friday, the two countries concluded a second round of historic talks and said Washington could reopen its embassy in Havana before the Summit of the Americas, which starts on April 10, if differences are overcome.

Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, described the talks as “productive and encouraging.”

“With the kind of cooperation that we had today, I certainly leave … optimistic, but committed and recognizing the work that still has to be done,” she said last Friday.

During the meeting, negotiators from both countries tackled logistical and political issues, such as restrictions on diplomats leaving Washington and Havana, diplomatic access to opposition activists, and Cuba’s placement on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The head of Cuba’s delegation, Josefina Vidal, did not demand Cuba’s removal from the list as a precondition for the restoration of diplomatic ties, but said it was a “very important issue.” Washington has said it will review Cuba’s status on the list, but opposes linking the two issues.

Practically speaking, the opening of the embassies is the easy part. Once the two countries exchange diplomatic notes, the U.S. Interests Section — a seven-story building on Havana’s seaside Malecón boulevard — merely needs a new sign and it’s open for business. The same goes for Cuba’s interest section, a rather regal residence in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The hard part is getting Havana to give U.S. diplomats broader access to the Cuban public, including political activists and dissidents — a key sticking point between the two sides.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Cuban government has stationed guards and cameras outside the U.S. Interests Section under the guise of “protection.” U.S. officials, however, see it as a form of harassment, noting that Cuban visitors are put on a government list as potential dissidents and that random pedestrians are told to walk on the other side of the street. Ideally, U.S. officials would like to meet freely with Cubans of all stripes, but Havana has resisted these demands, mindful of America’s long history of covert efforts at regime change on the communist island.

In the coming weeks, the two sides will also engage in a series of lower-level meetings on issues ranging from civil aviation to drug smuggling to human trafficking to banking. Although many Republicans in Congress have derided Obama’s policy reforms, the decision drew wide praise in Latin America, especially among heads of state in the region.

Still, some officials continue to hold out hope that a Republican-controlled Congress could confirm an ambassadorial nominee. They point to support for Obama’s Cuba reforms by Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky — and an acknowledgment by Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the 53-year-old economic embargo of Cuba has been ineffective — as positive signs.

Others, on and off Capitol Hill, are more pessimistic. One State Department official, reviewing recent weeks of congressional statements, said the odds do not favor the Obama administration. “There’s so much unhappiness among Republicans about this — it’s impossible to say a confirmation will happen,” said the official.

Photo credit: Getty Images