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GOP seeks to block Obama nominee to El Salvador post over Cuban romance

Senate Republicans are determined to block a Democratic Party activist's nomination as ambassador to El Salvador because of questions about a long-ago boyfriend who had contacts with Cuban diplomats, congressional staffers say.

The FBI cleared Mari Carmen Aponte when the issue of the boyfriend, Cuban-born businessman Roberto Tamayo, first became public after President Bill Clinton nominated her as ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 1998.

Aponte withdrew from that nomination after Senate Republicans vowed to ask tough questions about Tamayo. They had dated from 1982 to 1994 and attended social functions with Cuban diplomats in Washington, D.C.

Her Obama administration nomination to the El Salvador job was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations committee April 27, with 10 Democrats endorsing her -- including Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey -- and eight Republicans voting no.

But the Republicans will put a hold on her nomination when it comes up in the full Senate, meaning it will need 60 votes for confirmation unless they lift the hold, said congressional staffers who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the topic.

``This is clearly a controversial nomination. It was controversial the last time she was nominated, in a different administration,'' the committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, said during last month's vote.

The panel's Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC., had asked to look at Aponte's full FBI file and a reputed confidential memo on Tamayo's Cuban connections written during her 1998 nomination. Democrats countered that no such memo exists, and that by tradition only one member from each party is allowed to read the full files of nominees.

Menendez strongly defended Aponte during the April 27 vote, according to The Cable, a Washington-based foreign policy website.

``If I thought that, after having reviewed the file, that Miss Aponte would be a security risk to the United States in any context, but particularly in the context of the Castro regime . . . I would oppose her. But that is simply not the case,'' he was quoted as saying.

Cuban intelligence defector Florentino Aspillaga alleged in a 1993 newspaper article that Havana's spies were trying to recruit Aponte through Tamayo, but gave no details. FBI agents later revealed that Tamayo was in fact passing them information on his contacts with the Cuban diplomats in Washington.

The Puerto Rico-born Aponte, 63, has acknowledged that she and Tamayo attended some social functions with Cuban diplomats but insisted that she never became aware of any attempt to recruit her.

Aponte has been a longtime Hispanic community activist in Washington, working in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter, volunteering in the Clinton White House in 1993 and later raising campaign funds for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she ran for Senate.

She has served on the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza and as president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, and was executive director 2001-2004 of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, a liaison between the island's government and U.S. federal and state agencies.

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