The United States has tapped Jeffrey DeLaurentis, America’s top diplomat in Havana, to become the first official ambassador to Cuba in five decades.
“The appointment of an ambassador is a commonsense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations in December 2014. The two countries restored full diplomatic relations in July 2015.
Since then, Washington and Havana have taken once-unthinkable steps to mend ties after more than half a century of enmity.
Obama has visited Cuba and relaxed portions of the US embargo imposed since 1962.
Flights have resumed and cruise ships can now sail from Miami to Havana.
US companies like Airbnb and Netflix now operate in Cuba and hotel group Starwood, acquired last week by Marriott International, opened a Sheraton in Havana last June.
DeLaurentis is already in Havana and previously worked in Bogota and at the United Nations.
But his nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, is likely to face stiff opposition in Congress, where Cuban-American lawmakers have sought to garner local support by opposing Obama’s policies.
Any senator could place an anonymous hold on the nomination. Several Republican lawmakers have opposed Democrat Obama’s outreach to the Communist regime led by Castro.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American presidential contender in the Republican primary race who ultimately lost to Donald Trump, blasted Obama’s nomination.
“A US ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial and closed regime,” Rubio said in a statement.
“This 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.”
Accusing the Obama administration of failing to confront Cuba over its repressive policies, Rubio said the US embassy in Havana’s Twitter account “seems more like a travel agency than an advocate for American values and interests.”