U.S. Relations

Republicans in the U.S. Senate Are Holding Up Obama’s Nominee for Ambassador to El Salvador

Sixteen months after President Obama’s innauguration, the U.S. still does not have an ambassador to El Salvador. In December 2009, President Obama nominated Mari Del Carmen Aponte to the post, but past allegations that her former boyfriend Roberto Tamayo was a Cuban spy have slowed the Senate confirmation process. At the end of April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved her nomination 10-8 down party lines, but Republicans put a hold on her nomination requiring 60 votes for her confirmation.

Aponte, who was born in Puerto Rico, began in the 1970’s as a fellow in the Carter Administration. She then represented Hispanic-American issues as an attorney for Washington-based law firms, and served on the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza.  She also served as Executive Director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). President Clinton nominated her to serve as the Ambassador to the Dominican Republic in the 1990’s, but she withdrew her nomination instead of facing tough questions from Senator Jessie Helms and other Senate Republicans over her relationship with Tamayo.

Since Obama nominated her to the El Salvador post, conservative papers and bloggers have attacked Aponte for her relationship with Tamayo.  In March, Americans for Limited Government posted a two-page “Nominee Alert” that details her “disturbing ties to Cuba.” In calling for the Obama Administration to withdraw her nomination, the organization’s president writes, “we can’t have ambassadors who give aid to our enemies.”

The Weekly Standard wrote:“[y]es, she “cohabitated” with an agent of the Cuban spy service, DGI. Worse, DGI tried to recruit Aponte as an asset.” Senator Richard Lugar said during the April Committee vote:

“This is clearly a controversial nomination. It was controversial the last time she was nominated, in a different administration.”

The allegations against Aponte, however, seem without merit. On February 12,1999 the Miami Herald published an article on Aponte. At the time White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Nash said “agents who vet people’s backgrounds gave her a clean bill of health.” The article also points out that the FBI gave her top security clearance when Clinton nominated her to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

The Miami Herald article also looked into the roots of the allegations against Aponte.  In 1993, Florentino Aspillaga, an intelligence agent with Cuba’s Interior Ministry who had defected in 1987, told Miami’s Diario las Americas that Cuban spies were trying to recruit Aponte through Tamayo.  The 1999 Miami Herald article noted that at the time, Aspillaga offered no evidence to back up the claim, and that Tamayo was also an FBI asset.

In 1999, Ed Joyce, a retired FBI counterintelligence agent, told the Washington Times, “Tamayo was a valuable source of information about some of the personalities within the Cuban Interests Section.”  Joyce also stated that he “questioned Mr. Tamayo regularly about his contacts with Cuban officials during the 1980s” but he did not believe him to be a professionally trained intelligence officer.  “Roberto was a fellow who had interests in all camps. The Cubans knew Roberto was talking to me… I was getting information I couldn’t get other places,” Joyce continued.

Since Aponte’s most recent nomination, her detractors have based their fears on Joyce’s comment that “Roberto was a fellow who had interests in all camps,” and Aspillaga’s claim that Cubans were trying to recruit her through Tamayo. As the Miami Herald pointed out more than ten years ago, Aspillaga’s claims were not backed by evidence, and he seemed to lack a complete understanding of Tamayo’s activities. Joyce’s comments, if put into context, seem to portray Tamayo as a self-serving businessman who was more an asset to the FBI, and not a Cuban spy.

Senator Bob Menendez, one of the Foreign Relations Committee members to review Aponte’s FBI file, said during the hearing,

“[i]f 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. “

Perhaps there are good policy reasons to oppose Aponte as the next U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, but the allegations that she has ties to Cuban Intelligence agencies or would give aid to our enemies seem unjustified. We hope the full Senate will give Aponte fair consideration and base their vote on policy, not baseless accusations that were dismissed many years ago.

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