WASHINGTON — A Florida senator on Thursday dropped his opposition to the Obama administration's new ambassador to Brazil, saying he won commitments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on some areas of concern, including Honduras and Cuba.
Republican Sen. George LeMieux said he secured assurances from Clinton that the U.S. will normalize relations with Honduras and jump-start stalled democracy grants to nonprofits looking to work in Cuba.
The State Department was more circumspect, however, with Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, writing to LeMieux that the department would "take steps to normalize relations with Honduras" as it sees progress by the new government "in implementing the principles" of a diplomatic accord brokered in October.
LeMieux said he expected his move would pave the way for Thomas Shannon to be confirmed as ambassador to Brazil, the biggest country in Latin America and a growing regional power ruled by a moderate-left president whom the U.S. is hoping will counter far-leftist leaders in the region.
LeMieux's stall on Shannon had drawn criticism from a cadre of former assistant secretaries of state who said the prolonged vacancy threatened to damage relations with a key ally. Senate rules permit a single senator to block appointments and legislation.
Senate staffers had suggested that the hold was more about LeMieux looking to make points with Cuban-Americans, as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed him to the Senate seat, faces a Cuban-American opponent in the Republican Senate primary.
Shannon had triggered the ire of South Florida Cuban Americans who though he wasn't tough enough on the Castro regime during his tenure as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush.
LeMieux dismissed the criticism, saying, "I'm doing what I think is right. . . . I think that for our national security interests as well as our respect for the people of Latin America we have to push democratic initiatives."
LeMieux put up his block against Shannon on Nov. 6, the day after South Carolina Republican Sen. JimDeMint dropped a similar hold, saying he had won concessions from the administration over its handling of the crisis in Honduras.
LeMieux's office said he told Clinton that there is fear in the Cuban American community that the administration will agree to permanently block money for programs that foster democracy in Cuba in order to obtain the release of a U.S. contractor obtained in Cuba.
However, LeMieux said he got assurances from Clinton — whom he spoke with twice this week — "that we were not going to negotiate away democracy assistance in exchange for this person's return."
He said the administration also agreed to resume the practice of inviting Cuban dissidents to events at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Valenzuela wrote that a "broad cross-section of human rights defenders, dissidents, former political prisoners, independent librarians, independent writers and artists and civil rights activists are routinely invited and will continue to be invited, to events."
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