Senate Republicans are preparing to challenge President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to El Salvador over her previous ties to an alleged asset of Cuban intelligence.
Lawyer Mari Carmen Aponte was previously nominated to be an ambassador under President Bill Clinton, but withdrew her name from consideration after reports of her relationship with Cuban national Roberto Tamayo surfaced.
The Puerto Rican-born Aponte was a White House fellow under Jimmy Carter before spending the next 20 years as a lawyer and activist representing Hispanic-American interest groups in Washington. Her nomination originally was slated to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday but was pushed to Wednesday, March 16 at the request of GOP lawmakers.
“Serious concerns about this nominee arose when she was nominated for a different position during the Clinton administration. I have asked the committee for additional time to review these matters. So far we have not received all of the information we have requested,” said Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Aponte was first nominated to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic by Clinton in 1998 after she helped raise money for his 1996 re-election campaign. However, soon after her nomination Aponte’s name began to circle Washington in connection with a rumor that Tamayo, with whom she co-habitated for eight years starting in 1986, was an asset to the Cuban intelligence agency DGI. Former Cuban intelligence agent and defector Florentino Aspillaga also alleged Tamayo tried to recruit Aponte.
Aponte did not respond to multiple requests to comment and an individual answering the phone at her home said she would not return until Sunday. Tamayo could not be located for comment.
The Washington Times reported Tamayo was in regular contact with both the FBI and Cuban intelligence services during the late 1980s and early ’90s. One retired FBI counterintelligence officer described him as “a fellow who had interests in all camps.” When questioned by the FBI in April 1994 over Tamayo’s ties to Cuban intelligence, Aponte reportedly refused to take a lie detector test. There are also allegations that Tamayo provided her with a loan from the Cuban secret service that was never paid back.
The Miami Herald reported that Aponte broke up with Tamayo in 1994 when he insisted on visiting Cuba despite her opposition. Aponte was later cleared for a top-security clearance in 1999 over objections from senior officials, but she still chose to withdraw from her nomination after then-Senator Jesse Helms promised to ask tough personal questions during her confirmation hearing.
Those questions are likely to re-emerge now that Aponte is up for one of the most crucial diplomatic posts in Latin America. Friend and former colleague Karen Kingery Porter described Aponte as up to the challenge and capable of representing the United States’ interests in San Salvador.
“Mari’s language and cultural skills and understanding will make her a good person to perform this ambassadorial function,” Porter writes. “She is perceptive about human beliefs and feelings and can “read” others with amazing accuracy.”
However Ray Walser, senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage foundation and a 28-year veteran of the State Department questioned her qualifications and said Aponte was chosen purely for political reasons.
“I’m not sure what she has done, but she’s done nothing particular in the field of diplomacy,” Walser said. “Other than fact she has been a major campaign contributor, what qualifications does she bring?”
Walser said until recently the U.S. embassy in San Salvador was mainly controlled by career foreign service personnel due to the potential for political turmoil within the country. He noted that any perceived sympathies on the part of the U.S. ambassador towards Cuba would become a major issue in El Salvador, which he described as polarized between the extreme left and the right.
The post has been vacant since Obama took office. The previous ambassador under President Bush was Charles Glazer, a former investment banker and Republican National Committee member from Connecticut
From 2001-2004 Aponte was the executive director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration. She has also served as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council of La Raza and as president of the Hispanic National Bar Association.