STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news, the U.S. now has an embassy in Cuba. The embassy does not yet have an ambassador. And if Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has his way, there will not be one. McConnell has vowed to block any potential candidate. There is a career diplomat who was chief of mission there, and for maybe sometime to come as a matter of fact. His name is Jeffrey DeLaurentis. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, he is our man in Havana.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: There's a joke that Fidel Castro supposedly told back in the 1970s that is in vogue again on the island these days. When asked when the U.S. and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations, Fidel reportedly said, when the U.S. has a black president, and the world has a Latin American Pope. There are some in diplomatic circles that would add to that list - Jeffrey DeLaurentis the current head of the now reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana.
CARLOS ALZUGARAY: Jeff is definitely the kind of person you send to a country when you want to work with that country.
KAHN: Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, says when he heard that DeLaurentis was appointed last August to head up the then U.S. intersection in Havana, he thought to himself, something must be up. Alzugaray was unaware at the time that secret negations between the longtime enemies were underway to resume diplomatic ties.
ALZUGARAY: He knows what he's doing. He's well-trained diplomat. He's someone who knows how to present better the U.S. position.
KAHN: And get the Cubans to listen, says Alzugaray. DeLaurentis has had to get the Cubans to listen at many different and difficult times. This is his third posting in Cuba, his first tour of duty was in the early 1990s as the island was plunged into the severe economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He returned in 1999 as the head of the economic and political section of the mission, as the countries engaged in long fight over a young boy named Elian.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Thousands in Havana have regularly occupied the concrete plaza in front of the tall, brown, concrete U.S. mission to protest the international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez. The 6-year-old boy rescued in the Florida Straits from a hand-made boat. Vicki Huddleston, the head of the U.S. Interest Section at the time, credits DeLaurentis' skilled diplomacy with diffusing the situation, which ended with Gonzalez's return home. Huddleston says the Cubans trust him when he tells them the U.S. is going to do something.
VICKI HUDDLESTON: They'll believe it. They will know the United States is doing this because Jeff doesn't make up things. He doesn't exaggerate. He's telling it like it is.
KAHN: And he does it in a very quiet way. DeLaurentis, now 61, gives very few interviews and declined repeated requests by NPR. He did give a talk to a Model U.N. Conference in 2013, encouraging the young students of international diplomacy not to get discouraged.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: Multilateral diplomacy of the kind you will be tackling here the next few days is difficult. It can be frustrating, even maddening.
KAHN: He said reaching agreements with adversaries is like playing multidimensional chess. And avoiding a checkmate in Cuba may just be Jeffrey DeLaurentis's biggest career challenge yet. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.