HAVANA — Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced that she won’t seek reelection in the next midterm elections of 2018. Her retirement marks the end of a cycle characterized by the access of the first generation of Cuban immigrants to U.S. political life.
A young Cuban woman of Jewish descent, a teacher and most authentic counterrevolutionary, Ileana offered a perfect symbolic combination to project the interests of a political group that gained influence in the power structures of the United States, walking hand in hand with that country’s most conservative sectors.
She emerged at a time when Cuban immigrants evolved to become “Americans of Cuban origin,” i.e. “Cuban-Americans,” and the Republicans needed them to consolidate their party’s power in South Florida and contribute the most aggressive policies toward Central America and the Caribbean.
Her father, skilled in Cuban politics, made sure to project her image, and Jorge Mas Canosa, the chairman of the then-powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), became her political godfather.
In 1982, she was elected to the Florida state House and in 1989 won special elections to replace the late Democratic Congressman Claude Pepper. Her campaign was led by Jeb Bush, who was initiating a career that took him to the governor’s mansion in Florida. Even the region’s Democratic authorities supported Ileana, who became the first Hispanic woman to occupy a seat in the U.S. Congress.
It is said that she takes good care of her voters, especially the elderly ones, who “adore Ileanita.” Despite her firm alliance with the conservative Republicans in other areas, she has shown to be in favor of maintaining the programs of social assistance, against abusive policies toward immigrants and in defense of the rights of homosexuals.
Foreign policy was something else. She has voted in favor of all the wars launched by the United States, supporting coups d’état, as in the case of Honduras. Her tenure as chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee translated into an effort to integrate the Latin American right into a common front against progressive governments.
In Cuba she is called “the ferocious she-wolf,” an appellation she considers more a praiseful title than an insult and, in fact, she has distinguished herself by instigating and supporting the most aggressive policies. On several occasions, she said she supported the assassination of Fidel Castro; her support for terrorists of Cuban origin has been public and notorious.
Ileana was part of a generation of Cuban-American right-wingers who entered the White House without knocking, threatened their adversaries brazenly no matter how powerful they were, or blew up the store of a merchant who refused to contribute to “the cause.” Of that ilk, only Ileana remains.
Today’s Cuban-American politicians try to resemble Ileana, but cannot, simply because the conditions that made her possible no longer exist.
Most of them don’t carry the ballast of having been born in Cuba or participated in the counterrevolutionary activities of the early 1960s or worked for the C.I.A. the way their ancestors did, maintaining organic links and personal relationships with individuals who become heads of that institution. They were active pieces on the Cold War board.
On the other hand, not even Ileana Ros enjoys today the monolithic backing of Cuban-American voters or can win, sometimes without an opponent, the elections in his or her district.
In addition to the fact that the demographic structure of South Florida has changed as a result of the increase in other Latin American residents, the Cuban-American electorate’s social composition and political interests has changed.
The descendants and new immigrants today form the majority of Cuban voters, and those people don’t choose the same as before, especially when it comes to the case of Cuba. The Cuban-American far right lost that war and the affection of Cuban grandparents is not enough to win elections. Ileana knows this and, no doubt, that knowledge influenced her decision to retire.
The 2018 elections will be very important in the United States, especially for the composition of Cuban-American representatives in Congress.
As of now, Ileana’s seat is open for bids and it will be hard for another Republican to win in a district that voted overwhelming in favor of Hillary Clinton. Add to this the fact that Senator Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), who is under investigation on charges of fraud, will find it difficult to gain reelection.
Also, Congressmen like Mario Díaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo will have a tougher time at the polls than heretofore.
In any case, Ileana’s retirement is a harbinger of a new cycle in Cuban-American politics. No doubt, candidates will emerge who will say things that would have endangered their lives in 1980.