WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's ambassador to El Salvador may be heading home at year's end, her diplomatic future undone by old, unfounded rumors that her boyfriend was a Cuban spy and new conservative outrage over a summertime Op-Ed on gay rights.
Mari Carmen Aponte, a Washington lawyer and Hispanic activist, has served as ambassador in San Salvador since September 2010 after Obama, in response to Republican opposition to her nomination, made her a recess appointee. But her temporary tenure is about to run out, and GOP lawmakers are resisting a determined administration effort to secure Senate confirmation.
The opposition stems from questions about Aponte's relationship decades ago with a Cuban-American that scuttled her nomination during the Clinton administration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and a more recent essay she wrote in June to mark Obama's proclamation of gay pride month.
Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved her nomination on a 10-9 party-line vote last week, her fate in the full Senate is uncertain with just days left in the legislative session.
"It appears unlikely that all of these Republicans are going to change their mind as far as allowing it to come to a floor vote without a change in attitude about the information," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is pressing for more details about Aponte. "All of us think we should have an ambassador in El Salvador, but all of us are concerned that we get people who we know are the right people."
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, insists Aponte has done a "solid job in her capacity as ambassador now," including helping secure the deployment of Salvadoran troops to Afghanistan to aid in the fight against al-Qaida. "I have not heard of or seen any substantive rationale for her not continuing in this post," Kerry, D-Mass., said at last week's committee meeting.
Ratcheting up the pressure, several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus planned a news conference Tuesday afternoon to plead with the Senate to confirm Aponte, a Puerto Rican who served on the board at the National Council of La Raza. The caucus has called her "an asset to the Foreign Service and a highly effective advocate for the United States in Central America."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is likely to push for a vote despite GOP efforts to run out the clock on her selection, according to lawmakers and congressional aides.
Conservative anger toward Aponte is based, in part, on an op-ed she wrote June 28 in La Prensa Grafica, a daily newspaper in El Salvador, The essay was in response to a State Department cable to ambassadors worldwide urging them to recognize gay pride month.
In a Spanish-language piece titled, "For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist," Aponte wrote: "No one should be subjected to aggression because of who he is or who he loves. Homophobia and brutal hostility are often based on lack of understanding about what it truly means to be gay or transgender. To avoid negative perceptions, we must work together with education and support for those facing those who promote hatred."
In the op-ed, Aponte noted that the United States and El Salvador were among more than 80 nations that had signed a U.N. declaration for the elimination of violence against gays and lesbians. She also pointed out that El Salvador President Mauricio Funes had signed a decree in May 2010 prohibiting discrimination by the government based on sexual orientation.
But 57 percent of El Salvador's population is Roman Catholic, and several Salvadoran family and religious groups wrote to U.S. lawmakers criticizing Aponte for "abusing her diplomatic status, showing a clear disdain concerning our values and cultural identity." They urged lawmakers to oppose her confirmation and suggested she be removed from the post.
DeMint, writing last month in Human Events, assailed Aponte for the op-ed and revived the old speculation about her personal life.
"Our relationship with the Salvadoran people has been one of trust and friendship for decades," DeMint said. "We should not risk that by appointing an ambassador who shows such a blatant disregard for their culture and refuses to clear unsettled doubts about her previous relationships. It's time to bring Ms. Aponte home."
In Aponte's defense, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was unfair to single her out for an op-ed that was prompted by a State Department missive.
"I really believe what's at stake here is politics more than a real concern about her background," Menendez said in an interview.
Thirteen years ago, when President Bill Clinton nominated Aponte, reports surfaced that a former live-in boyfriend, Roberto Tamayo, had ties to Cuban intelligence in Fidel Castro's regime and that Cuban intelligence agents had tried to recruit her. The head of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., signaled he would question Aponte about the allegations at her confirmation hearing; she withdrew her nomination.
In the end, the FBI cleared her. On two occasions, Aponte has received top-secret security clearances.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the allegations were "simply false and unfounded," and Aponte has the full backing of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Menendez, a Cuban-American, said his opposition to the Castro regime is second to none in the House or Senate and if there were any truth to the rumors about Aponte, he would have opposed her nomination.
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