President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis as his choice to become the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than a half-century, a move that sets up a possible fight with congressional critics of Obama's overtures to the communist island nation.
DeLaurentis currently is the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Senate confirmation is required but will be tough for the White House to win before Obama's term ends in January. Senators who argue that Cuba doesn't deserve diplomatic outreach from the U.S. have vowed to block any ambassador nomination, citing lack of progress on democracy and human rights on the island. Among them are Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., both with roots in Cuba.
Obama said Tuesday that DeLaurentis' leadership was "vital" throughout the normalization process.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro surprised the world in December 2014 by announcing that the one-time foes had agreed, after secret negotiations, to restore diplomatic relations, including reopening embassies in each other's countries. The U.S. and Cuba severed diplomatic ties in 1961 amid the Cold War.
Obama called the naming of an ambassador a "common-sense" step toward more productive relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and said DeLaurentis is the best person for the job.
"Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government," he said in a statement that called attention to DeLaurentis' extensive experience in Cuba and Latin America. "We only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador."
Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, Jose R. Cabanas, was given the rank of ambassador last year.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and foreign operations, argued for DeLaurentis' confirmation.
"The Cuban people have their ambassador in Washington. The American people need their ambassador in Havana," Leahy said in a statement.
Since diplomatic relations were re-established on July 20, 2015, DeLaurentis has led a series of negotiations with Cuba on topics ranging from human rights to the billions of dollars in U.S. claims against Cuba for properties that were confiscated during the country's revolution in 1959.
Even if ultimately unsuccessful, the nomination of a U.S. ambassador could provide a boost to the Obama administration's final months of negotiations with Cuba, a country highly attuned to the degree of respect it feels it is receiving from the U.S.
Earlier this year, Obama visited Cuba with his wife and daughters. During the brief visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president in nearly seven decades, Obama met with Castro and attended a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball. He also addressed the Cuban people.