By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than five decades, setting up a fierce confirmation battle with Republicans in Congress opposed to Obama’s opening with the communist-ruled island.
The appointment of DeLaurentis, the top American official at the U.S. embassy in Havana since relations were restored last year, marked Obama’s latest move to go as far as he can in normalizing ties between the former Cold War foes before he leaves office in January.
The nomination must be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, which is seen as a long shot, especially in a presidential election year and given expected strong resistance from Cuban-American senators including Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Rubio, in a blistering statement, derided the nomination as a "last-ditch legacy project" by Obama and said it "should go nowhere."
An individual senator has the power - one that is often invoked - to put a "hold" on an ambassadorial nomination to delay a full Senate vote.
In a veiled appeal to lawmakers, Obama praised DeLaurentis for his leadership during the normalization process. "We only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador" in Havana, he said in a statement.
"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," Obama said.
DeLaurentis had been widely tipped for the post. But the president held off naming him until now even as Cuba appointed its own ambassador to Washington shortly after embassies were reopened in both countries’ capitals in July of last year.
He would be the first U.S. envoy since Philip Bonsal, an appointee of President Dwight Eisenhower, left the post vacant in late 1960.
NOMINATION FOLLOWS OBAMA VISIT
Obama traveled to Havana in March, the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years. The trip was made possible by his breakthrough agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution.
Since the opening, Obama has repeatedly used his executive powers to relax trade and travel restrictions, while pushing Cuba to accelerate cautious market-style reforms and allow greater political and economic freedom.
Even so, the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place, a major irritant in relations. Only Congress can lift the embargo, and the Republican leadership is not expected to allow such a move anytime soon.
DeLaurentis has been U.S. chief of mission in Cuba since August 2014, his third posting in Havana. He has also held diplomatic posts at the State Department in Washington, at the U.S. mission to the United Nations and in Bogota.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)