U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle stand with U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis (L), as they meet with embassy staff in a hotel in Havana March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria(reuters_tickers)
By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than five decades, setting up a fierce confirmation battle with Republicans in Congress opposed to Obama’s opening with the communist-ruled island.
The appointment of DeLaurentis, who has been the top American official at the U.S. embassy in Havana since relations were restored last year, marked Obama’s latest move to go as far as he can in normalizing ties between the former Cold War foes before he leaves office in January.
The nomination must be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, which is seen as a long shot, especially in a presidential election year and given strong resistance expected from Cuban-American lawmakers such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
"Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and the appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries,” Obama said in a statement.
DeLaurentis had been widely tipped as Obama’s favourite for the post. But he held off naming him until now despite Cuba’s appointment of its own ambassador to Washington shortly after embassies were reopened in both countries’ capitals in July of last year. He would be the first U.S. envoy to Cuba in 55 years.
Obama visited Havana in March, a trip made possible by his breakthrough agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution.
While Obama has since chipped away at travel and trade restrictions, the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place, a continuing irritant in relations. Only Congress can lift the embargo, and the Republican-controlled legislature is not expected to do so anytime soon.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)