Politics

Did Marco Rubio scare the White House away from nominating an ambassador to Cuba?

President Barack Obama makes a face toward a group of children in the audience as he stands onstage with first lady Michelle Obama while he is introduced by Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, left, charge d’affaires to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, during a meeting with embassy personnel at Melia Habana Hotel, in Havana on March 20, 2016.
President Barack Obama makes a face toward a group of children in the audience as he stands onstage with first lady Michelle Obama while he is introduced by Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, left, charge d’affaires to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, during a meeting with embassy personnel at Melia Habana Hotel, in Havana on March 20, 2016. AP

One of the White House’s key architects of its Cuba policy said the Obama administration waited 14 months to nominate an ambassador to Cuba because officials knew how easy it would be for a U.S. senator like Marco Rubio to block the nomination and it didn’t want such a fight to distract from other priorities.

“We knew we had to get a bunch of things done first that were priorities, like negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations, the state sponsor of terrorism issue, some of the initial bilateral cooperation, the president’s trip,” said U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

On Tuesday, the White House nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis as the “first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.” He has been the chief of the U.S. Embassy in Havana since it reopened last year after President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro reestablished diplomatic relations.

The nomination, as expected, has already created a new source of tension between the White House and Miami’s congressional delegation, which has largely opposed the administration’s cozying up to the communist government.

Charging that Obama has capitulated to the Castro regime, the South Florida Republican Rubio warned he’ll fight the DeLaurentis’ nomination.

He’s done it before.

Last year, Rubio took a months long stand against the nomination of Roberta Jacobsen, who helped negotiate the diplomatic opening with Cuba, as the new ambassador in Mexico City despite broad bipartisan support for her in Congress.

Rubio lifted his hold on the nomination this past spring only after the Obama administration agreed to extend sanctions against key Venezuelan officials for three years. It’ll likely take much more for Rubio to back down on the DeLaurentis nomination considering his unrelenting opposition on the Cuba rapprochement.

“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,” Rubio said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., called the nomination a “ a direct slap in the face to the people of Cuba and to American ideals” and said it helps legitimize the Castro regime’s brutal tactics in the eyes of the international community.

Aside from the South Florida delegation, Rhodes said DeLaurentis has great support among a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the administration, the business community and large parts of the Cuban-American population.

The White House is well aware of Rubio’s opposition to any nomination of an ambassador, but Rhodes said it was important to send a positive message about U.S.-Cuban relations.

“They’ll put up a fight and we’ll see if we can get him a vote,” Rhodes said. “Hopefully we can. If not, we wanted to set the precedent that governments nominate ambassadors to Cuba. And it’ll be evident over time that it’s self-defeating to just deny us the resource of an ambassador.”

Nora Gámez Torres reports for McClatchy’s El Nuevo Herald.

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