Veteran diplomat in Havana shortlisted for ambassador

Updated: 2015-07-03 07:53

By Associated Press in Havana(China Daily)

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From his office high above Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis has a sweeping view of the cerulean Florida Straits and the blood-red letters declaring Cuba's defiance of the United States.

"Homeland or Death!" reads the sign erected in front of the US interests section built 15 years ago, when DeLaurentis was a junior officer working to defuse a standoff over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, a boy whose raft voyage to the US sparked international controversy.

Now on this third assignment in Cuba, DeLaurentis is the top US diplomat on the island, working to bring an end to more than a half-century of hostilities between the two countries. Known for his low-key style and public discretion, the 61-year-old diplomat is on a shortlist of candidates for US ambassador to Cuba, if there is to be one.

On Wednesday, DeLaurentis hand-delivered a letter from the White House to the Cuban Foreign Ministry about restoring embassies in the countries' respective capitals. Their diplomatic missions, called interests sections, will be converted into embassies as soon as July 20, although the US State Department says it does not yet have a date for a formal ceremony.

Several Republicans in Congress have vowed to block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana and hold up funding for an embassy there.

"There aren't many diplomats who could represent the United States in Havana during this sensitive but promising chapter," former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said. "Jeff is one of them."

DeLaurentis was a consular officer in Cuba in 1991-93. As head of the US Interests Section's economic and political department from 1999 to 2002, he was a key negotiator in the fight over Elian Gonzalez's custody. The boy was ultimately returned to his father in Cuba.

Vicki Huddleston, who headed the mission then, said DeLaurentis' quiet diplomacy helped dial down tensions.

DeLaurentis also was "instrumental" in discussions with Cuban officials over the use of the Guantanamo naval base in eastern Cuba to house prisoners held on terrorism charges following the Sept 11 attacks.

"He always sort of quietly pushed the envelope with Cuban officials, but they always gave him a lot of credit," Huddleston said. "He was always spot-on in interpreting Cuban motives and actions."

The lanky DeLaurentis is a distinctive figure around Havana, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and tie for meetings with other foreign diplomats, business people and Cubans he has known for years.

As in his earlier stints, DeLaurentis "gets out of the building and talks with people," said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst who travels to the island regularly. "He knows the country very, very well."

Most recently, DeLaurentis was a deputy to US Ambassador Samantha Power at the United Nations, where a former colleague said he was known as "the person who turned on the lights in the morning and was the last to leave at night."

True to form, DeLaurentis declined to speak on the record because of the ongoing US-Cuba negotiations.

 Veteran diplomat in Havana shortlisted for ambassador

A woman with a US flag over her head celebrates the news in the Cuban province of Holguin on Wednesday.  Agence France-Presse

 Veteran diplomat in Havana shortlisted for ambassador

Jeffrey DeLaurentis (left), chief of the US interests section in Cuba, and Cuba's Interim Foreign Minister Marcelino Medina sit at a meeting prior to the handing over of a letter from US President Barack Obama for Cuba's President Raul Castro in Havana on Wednesday. Desmond Boylan / Associated Press

(China Daily 07/03/2015 page11)