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Panel of U.S. House Republicans bans funding for U.S. embassy in Havana

@maria_e_recio

WASHINGTON — The White House may be moving quickly to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, but House Republicans are trying to put on the brakes as a key panel voted Wednesday to prohibit funding for a U.S. embassy in Havana.

The vote by the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department and foreign operations does not prevent the department from designating an embassy in Havana.

But it makes it more difficult.

The U.S. already has a building on Havana’s Malecon waterfront that was the embassy until President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations in 1961.

It is now the home of the U.S. government’s outpost in the communist nation, the Cuban Interests Section. But the building is badly dilapidated, and the State Department told Congress last month that it needs $6.6 million to make improvements for it to function as an embassy.

Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives, among them several Cuban-Americans, fiercely oppose the White House rapprochement with Cuba that began last year and are behind the efforts to block the embassy and appointment of an ambassador.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a member of the funding subcommittee, said that the provision not only prohibits funds for a U.S. embassy but also prohibits support for a Cuban embassy and Cuban consulates in the U.S.

"As President Obama continues to appease the Castro brothers, I will work with my colleagues to ensure that the Congress stands in solidarity with the Cuban people rather than providing further concessions to their oppressors," said Diaz-Balart in a statement.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also a member of the subcommittee, said, "Unfortunately, this committee is still stuck in the past." Like many Democrats and Republicans wanting to expand trade, she said, "We should be moving to increase exchanges with our neighbors."

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., who is Puerto Rican, and also attended the vote on the funding bill, said in an interview, “I think we should have an embassy, a full-fledged embassy, and the president should have the right to establish relations.” The problem, he said, is the fear that politicians have of the powerful Cuban-American community in Florida.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The president has made clear that it is clearly in our interest to try to start normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. And the next logical step in that normalization process would be establishing a Cuban Embassy in the United States and establishing an American Embassy in Cuba.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is Cuban-American and a Republican presidential hopeful,vowed earlier this week to oppose any nominee to be ambassador to Cuba unless a series of demands on democracy and human rights are met.

But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading Cuba trade advocate, said, “We need to have a U.S. ambassador in Cuba so that U.S. citizens traveling and conducting business there are fully protected, just as they are in other foreign countries.”

In another sign of displeasure with the administration, the House funding bill also took a swipe at the State Department by withholding 15 percent of its operating budget unless officials respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. The demand was prompted by persistent Republican efforts to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the deaths of four American. including the U.S. ambassador.

Republicans have launched eight investigations so far, on top of probes by the FBI and the State Department. The previous inquiry, by the House Intelligence Committee, debunked several GOP conspiracy theories related to the event.

“The committee’s overarching preference remains for the State Department to produce all relevant documents needed to complete the task assigned to us by the House,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the latest probe. “The committee has tried talking to the State Department, writing letters, sending subpoenas, having compliance hearings and signaling that this step would also be considered if relevant documents were not produced.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said this week that officials were committed to being forthcoming with Congress.

“And I think it is sort of counterproductive to threaten to cut funding for the precise people you need working to provide you with more information,” she said.

--MARIA RECIO, McClatchy Washington Bureau

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