Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Top American diplomat in Cuba in line to head new embassy

    Top American diplomat in Cuba in line to head new embassy
    Associated Press

    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

    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

    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

    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.”