Statement On The Nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
The Nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis

September 28, 2016

Mr. LEAHY: Mr. President, yesterday President Obama nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be United States Ambassador to Cuba. If confirmed, Mr. DeLaurentis would be the first U.S. ambassador in Havana in more than half a century.

I have known Jeff DeLaurentis since he became the U.S. chief of mission in Havana, and he is the obvious choice to be ambassador. He is a career diplomat who is universally respected by his peers, and by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, for his intellect, his integrity, and his thoughtfulness.

The decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba has been widely supported, and the number of Americans traveling to Cuba is increasing dramatically. We need an Ambassador who knows Cuba, who is respected by the Cuban Government, and who will stand up for U.S. interests and values. Jeff DeLaurentis is that person. The Cuban people have their ambassador in Washington. The American people need their ambassador in Havana.

Not surprisingly, one Senator who has opposed the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba criticized the nomination of Mr. DeLaurentis. While he did not challenge Mr. DeLaurentis’ qualifications for the job, since he is obviously exceptionally well qualified, the Senator instead said “rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the president that needs to be stopped.” He said the 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.” He was joined in his opposition to Mr. DeLaurentis’ nomination by another Senator.

Having been to Cuba many times where I have met with Cuban government officials, as well as with critics of the government including some who have been persecuted and imprisoned, no one is a stronger defender of human rights there than I am. Like President Obama, we all want the Cuban people to be able to express themselves freely, and to choose their own leaders in a free and fair election.

For fifty years we have tried the isolationist approach advocated by a dwindling minority of Members of Congress, and it has failed miserably. The Castros are still in power, and Cuba is still a country where political dissent is not tolerated.

No one who knows Cuba expected the resumption of diplomatic relations to quickly result in an end to repression or free elections. But I am confident than in a lot less than fifty years, the Cuban people will have a lot more freedom than they have had for the past fifty years.

Consider for a moment what it would mean if we did what these Senators advocate. Not only would we have no ambassador in Cuba, to be consistent we would have no ambassador in China, Vietnam, Russia, South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, or in any number of other countries where human rights are routinely violated, where political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders are imprisoned and tortured, where there is no such thing as a fair trial, where civil society organizations are threatened and harassed, and where dissent is severely punished.

Is that what the Senators want, or are they just concerned about human rights in Cuba? Their argument is as illogical as it is inconsistent.

The purpose of an ambassador is to represent the interests of the United States government and the American people. Appointing a U.S. ambassador is not a reward to a foreign government, any more than their ambassadors are a reward to our government. Do the Senators think that our ambassador in Russia is a reward to President Putin, or that having an ambassador in Moscow somehow conveys that we agree with President Putin’s corrupt, repressive policies? Does anyone think that Russia’s ambassador is somehow a reward to the Obama administration? Or that our ambassador in Vietnam legitimizes the repressive policies of that government? Does anyone think that the Cuban government regards its ambassador here as a reward to us?

Let’s be sensible. The United States has interests in every country, even if it is just to stand up for the rights of Americans who travel, study, or work overseas. But there are many other reasons, like promoting trade and investment, protecting national security and public health, and supporting educational and cultural exchange.

We could do as these Senators urge and downgrade our diplomatic presence, and withdraw our ambassadors from every country where there is a repressive government. That, of course, would mean that our lower ranking diplomats would be relegated to meeting with foreign officials of lesser rank than ambassador.

And, of course, those governments, like Cuba, would still have their ambassadors in Washington, with access to officials of comparable rank in our government. Would that help us advocate for U.S. interests, for U.S. values, for the American people?

We either believe in diplomacy or we don’t. We either empower our diplomats, or we don’t. The Cubans, after a year of difficult negotiations, agreed to reopen embassies. Now, with their ambassador here conducting business, we are somehow better off without an ambassador there? Of course not.

I understand that this is an emotional issue for some Cuban-American families. But after 55 years, Cuban-Americans overwhelmingly support the new policy of engagement. They want the U.S. to have an ambassador in Havana.

There is a time for family politics and there is time for what is in the interest of the nation as a whole. Ambassadors serve the national interest, and that is what Jeff DeLauentis would do, and he would do so as a career diplomat with years of experience.

Finally, Mr. President, I want to quote from Alan Gross, who as we all know, spent five long years in a Cuban prison. This is what Mr. Gross said about Mr. DeLaurentis’ nomination:

“I advocate for the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to Cuba and I have a very high regard for Ambassador Jeff DeLaurentis. Had there been diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2008, a U.S. Ambassador could have prevented the loss of five years of my life. Any one in Congress who opposes this nomination goes against the best interests of the United States.”

We should listen to Alan Gross. He suffered in Cuba, as do thousands of Americans imprisoned overseas. They depend on our ambassadors to assist and advocate for them, just as we would if it were a member of our families.

I urge these Senators to put what is in the interests of the American people over their personal interests, and to not obstruct the confirmation of Jeff DeLaurentis, a superbly qualified nominee, from becoming Ambassador to Cuba.

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