Jul 2, 2015 12:17 AM

Top American diplomat in Cuba in line to head new embassy

The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) 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 U.S. Interests Section built 15 years ago, when DeLaurentis was a more junior officer working to defuse a standoff over the fate of child rafter Elian Gonzalez.

Now, on this third assignment in communist Cuba, DeLaurentis is the top U.S. 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 also is on a short list for U.S. 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 respective diplomatic missions called interests sections will be converted into embassies as soon as July 20, although the U.S. State Department says it does not yet have a date for a formal ceremony.

Cuba said the ceremony to convert the respective interests sections into embassies will be held July 20.

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

"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, when the island was plunged into economic crisis with the Soviet Union's collapse. As head of the U.S. Interests Section's economic and political section in 1999-2002, DeLaurentis was a key negotiator in the fight over Elian Gonzalez's custody.

Vicki Huddleston, who headed the mission then, said DeLaurentis' quiet diplomacy helped dial down tensions when Cuban officials threatened a mass migration of rafters if the young castaway wasn't returned to his homeland. President Bill Clinton's administration ultimately backed the parental rights of Elian's father in Cuba and returned the boy to the island.

DeLaurentis also was "instrumental" in discussions with Cuban officials over the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush's administration to use 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."

Huddleston recalled that she and DeLaurentis attended Mass at a local Roman Catholic church and he worked to get computers to the parish at a time that such technology in the hands of a non-governmental entity was viewed suspiciously.

Huddleston was succeeded as head of mission by James Cason, who enraged Fidel Castro by meeting with government opponents at a dissident's home in 2003. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested several weeks later.

Negotiations to free USAID contractor Alan Gross were under way for months before DeLaurentis returned to Havana as head of mission last August. Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba announced a deal on Dec. 17 to free Gross and three Cuban prisoners in the United States and to work toward renewing diplomatic relations.

The tall, lanky DeLaurentis is a distinctive figure around Havana, dressed in a long-sleeve 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."

True to form, DeLaurentis declined to speak on the record because of the U.S.-Cuba negotiations. He has spoken very little with major media since Dec. 17. He told CBS's "60 Minutes" that a new U.S. exception to the trade embargo would allow exchange of Internet technology that could be a "game changer down the line" by connecting Cuba to the world and "lighting up the island."

DeLaurentis is a graduate of the Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Columbia University's Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. He was a senior official at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York before joining the U.S. State Department and has worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, and in Washington, including as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Most recently, DeLaurentis was a deputy to U.S. 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."

DeLaurentis' online presence is minimal, mostly written texts of addresses to the U.N. Security Council. In one rare speech carried by YouTube, the graying diplomat with dark-rimmed glasses told students at a 2013 International Model U.N. Conference that international diplomacy "can be frustrating, even maddening."

He didn't elaborate on the challenges of being a diplomat in Cuba, which has not had formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. since 1961.

"He's trying to rebuild a relationship that has been in shambles for 55 years," Dutch Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis said.

The United States needs "someone who is very cautious - but also very knowledgeable and with well above average insights," Braakhuis said. DeLaurentis, he added, is "clearly the right person at the right time and place."

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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Anita Snow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/asnowreports

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