Why We Can’t Have a Cuban Ambassador

Since everything has to be ridiculously politicized, it’s natural that it’s going to be impossible to get a hearing, let alone a confirmation, for President Obama’s nominee to be Ambassador to Cuba. Jeffrey DeLaurentis is already doing the job, albeit with the lower rank of “Chargé d’affaires ad interim.” He’s been our top State Department official in Havana since the president normalized relations with Cuba last year. It makes sense to give him the more appropriate rank and title of ambassador.

Commercial flights to Cuba began in August. The policy is not going to be reversed, and certainly not by a casino magnate like Donald Trump. Mobbed-up gaming industrialists have been looking to get back to Havana since Meyer Lansky was in his fifties. Hell, the Kennedys even enlisted Sam Giancana, John Roselli and Santo Trafficante Jr. to assassinate Castro. They wanted their casino hotels back, and they wanted access to the Cuban market.

Even if you disagree with the decision to end a policy of isolating Cuba that had benefited no one for more than half a century, refusing to vote on an ambassador is just petulance.

Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), have vowed to block anyone Obama nominates as ambassador.

It’s an effort to rebuke Obama’s decision to reopen ties with Cuba, a move they believe rewards the communist island nation, which still commits human-rights abuses against its citizens.

“A U.S. ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial, closed regime,” Rubio, a Cuban-American, said in a July interview.

I have to wonder why we have ambassadors in any countries that have dictatorships or monarchial ruling families or that fail in some way to live up to our ideal of openness. Do these countries listen to our ambassadors? Do our ambassadors have any influence over the House of Saud or Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea?

Equatorial Guinea’s relations with the United States entered a cooling phase in 1993, when Ambassador John E. Bennett was accused of practicing witchcraft at the graves of 10 British airmen who were killed when their plane crashed there during World War II. Bennett left after receiving a death threat at the U.S. Embassy in Malabo in 1994. In his farewell address, he publicly named the government’s most notorious torturers, including Equatorial Guinea’s then-current Minister of National Security, Manuel Nguema Mba. No new envoy was appointed, and the embassy was closed in 1996, leaving its affairs to be handled by the embassy in neighboring Cameroon.

Our ambassador returned to Malabo in 2006 and we completed a new embassy complex there in 2013. Was that a “reward,” too? Perhaps it was a reward to U.S. oil firms or some kind of quid pro quo for providing assistance in Bush’s “Global War on Terror.” It’s amazing what lobbyists can do to humanize even the most brutal of regimes.

When it’s convenient or in some strategic or economic interest, we ally ourselves with despots with far more terrifying human rights records than the one compiled by the Castro brothers. And, except in the most extreme cases, we maintain diplomatic relations even with our enemies.

Here’s what the White House says:

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes disagreed in an interview with Yahoo News, which first reported the nomination.

“To us, the concept that it’s a reward for a country to have an ambassador makes no sense,” Rhodes said. “On the contrary, having an ambassador gives you a higher profile, a higher-ranked advocate for what America cares about.”

That’s inarguable, but this isn’t even a debate about whether or not to have an ambassador. It’s a debate about whether to call our top diplomat in Havana an ambassador and provide him with the rank, title, prestige and (perhaps) pay that he deserves.

Once again, however, common sense will be held hostage to political pandering and posturing.

The opponents of this nomination are, with a small handful of exceptions, all Republicans. They know this isn’t a reward to Cuba. They just don’t want to cooperate with our president or in any way ratify his decision to open up our relationship to Cuba. And they want to keep their cred with the dead-ender anti-Castro lobby. So, just as with Merrick Garland, the nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis will be ignored.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.