With Ros-Lehtinen retiring, the anti-embargo side has reason to celebrate

The forces aligned to end America’s 50-year-plus hostility against Cuba scored a major, unexpected victory last week.

The surprise announcement that Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen would not run for re-election is welcome news for those who are looking for something positive in the stalled normalization process under the Trump administration.

Ros-Lehtinen has been a vociferous adversary of the Cuban Revolution throughout her almost 30-year Congressional career.  The long-standing member of the House of Representatives from Miami has often been seen as the most important of the group of Cuban-American politicians opposed to Cuba’s revolutionary leadership.

Known as “la loba feroz” or “the big bad she-wolf, by Havana officials, Ros-Lehtinen has consistently supported the embargo and all legislative attempts to strengthen it, as well as fighting to defeat any intent aimed at weakening the siege against Cuba.  The Cuban-born Ros-Lehtinen was at the forefront of hard line opposition to President Obama’s move towards normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014, at the time calling it “immoral and illegal”. As late as last December Ros-Lehtinen continued to criticize what she called  “President Obama’s failed and disastrous Cuba policy.” She also maintains her displeasure with the easing of travel restrictions for Americans, and her fellow Cuban-Americans, to visit the island.

A much younger Ros-Lehtinen seen together with convicted terrorist Orlando Bosch. Inscribed in the photo: “Orlando, with much affection, Ileana.”

At one time calling for the assassination of Fidel Castro, she favored keeping Elian Gonzales in Miami, and in the past was closely associated with (now deceased) Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, the two masterminds of the bombing of Cubana Airlines in 1976.

Nothing was too small for her to notice when it came to anything that might benefit Cuba.

She took on the Cuban children group la Colmenita while it toured the US in late 2011, demanding to know from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton why the troupe received visas and if any taxpayer money was used to subsidize the tour. She further called for the end of all cultural exchanges between the two countries. Ros-Lehtinen had previously criticized the Smithsonian institute for arranging travel programs to Cuba. Conversely, she remains a strong proponent of the millions spent on anti-Cuba propaganda programs such as TV and Radio Marti.

For the decades as a representative of the most reactionary elements of the Cuban-American community in Florida, she has steadfastly refused to accept any hint of reconciliation with the Castro government. Her influence in shaping anti-Cuban policy and blocking any attempts to diminish it has made her the guiding force behind the United States long-standing strategy of regime change. Republicans and Democrats alike would defer to her position regarding Cuba, and very few would challenge her misguided stance that punishing the Cuban people through punitive American foreign policy legislation was a positive policy.

On numerous occasions her supposed expertise on the ‘evils’ of the Revolutionary government was the convincing factor in stopping various measures designed to weaken the embargo. And now that all important anti-Cuba voice will soon no longer be heard in Congress.

That in itself could be a game changer.

Although a critic of Donald Trump, upon his winning the presidency Ros-Lehtinen welcomed Trump’s stated position of rolling back Obama’s openings with Cuba. Although she continues to support the president’s promise to turn back the clock, after next year she will no longer have the capacity to guide any new anti-Cuba policy through Congress.  Nor will she be able to prevent those in favor of normalizing relations with the island nation from introducing legislation. Just as importantly, Trump knows that he’s now lost a vitally important ally if he ever does follow through on his retrograde policy against Cuba.

Her decision to not run for re-election means the pro-embargo faction has lost one of its most important gate-keepers. Whoever replaces her, from either party, will undoubtedly not have the same drive, influence or power Ros-Lehtinen wielded in her never ending obsession to harm the Cuban government, all the while disingenuously claiming she was trying to help the Cuban people.

That she will no longer be in Congress promoting her anti-Cuba position and twisting arms to prevent those who wanted to follow a more rational strategy, is nothing but a positive development. The anti-Cuba forces will be considerably weakened when she steps down, and pro-normalization energies will be revitalized. The weaker the pro-embargo side becomes the easier it will be for the moderates in the Cuban-American community and those who support normalization in Congress to achieve their goals.  Whoever takes her seat will undoubtedly bring a more reasonable view about Cuba to the table, and that alone will help embolden the increasing number of Congressmen who favor normalization.

Cuban policy since the 1980s has been driven almost exclusively by the Cuban-American representatives whose overwhelmingly negative opinions regarding their homeland are consistently given unwarranted credence by their fellow congressmen. At the top of that pyramid has been Ros-Lehtinen. When she demands maintenance of the embargo and condemns any rapprochement to Cuba– few dare to challenge. With her influential voice now soon to be silent, a significant shift to the pro-normalization side has occurred. When legislation  ending or diminishing the embargo works its way through Congress, she won’t be there to use her considerable leverage to stop it. The result could make passage much more likely.

So while Trump continues to dither on what he will do with Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen’s retiring may give him pause to consider his best course of action. Regardless of what he decides, if he decides anything, the news that the first Cuban-American to be elected to Congress will no longer be around could mean that true normalization has moved one step closer to reality. It is a good day for those hoping to see the end of the half century of hostility between these two close neighbors.

Keith Bolender is author of Voices From the Other Side (Pluto Press 2010) and Cuba Under Siege (Palgrave 2013).