Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is poised to take the gavel for the House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs after her party's sweep of Tuesday's congressional elections, arrived in the United States in 1960, at the age of 8. The Pan Am jet that carried her to Miami International Airport from Havana, where her father had been a prominent member of the anti-Castro violent resistance, was one of the last commercial flights to leave Cuba. "We thought it was just another revolution in the homeland that would blow over in a matter of weeks," she told the Washington Post in 2007. "The weeks turned into decades, and here we are. Pan Am went bankrupt, and the Castro regime is still operating."
Ros-Lehtinen is not only the first Hispanic woman elected to the House of Representatives, but also the first Cuban exile, and her policy record shows it. She has supported every single law and regulation shoring up the United States' 48-year-old embargo of the island, and opposed any international engagement with Fidel Castro regime -- even Pope John Paul II's visit to the country in 1998. In 1989, she successfully lobbied President George H.W. Bush to secure the release of -- and amnesty for -- Orlando Bosch, a Cuban exile previously imprisoned in Venezuela for blowing up a Cuban airliner with 73 passengers aboard, including 24 members of the Cuban national fencing team. In 2000, she fought the repatriation of Elian Gonzalez, with less success.
Marco Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen's former intern who was elected as Florida's Republican junior senator on Tuesday, shares her background in the exile community and much of her outlook on Cuba policy. In his victory speech, he described Castro's revolution, in a well-worn exile phrase, as "an accident of history." As a member of the Florida legislature seven years ago, he signed a letter to President George W. Bush calling for the end of the "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy towards Cubans and more funding for the anti-Castro radio and television stations the U.S. government broadcasts into Cuba.
These positions are emblematic of the Cuban exile community in Miami, a voting bloc whose enormous political heft belies its size. The 838,000 exiles in the Miami area -- less than five percent of Florida's population -- have been a pillar of Republican support in presidential elections since 1980, and over the subsequent years have sent two Cuban-American Republican senators and four Republican congressmen to Washington. (New Jersey is represented in the Senate and House by the Cuban-American Democrats Bob Menendez and Albio Sires, respectively, both of whom typically vote with the Florida Republicans on Cuba issues.) The lawmakers have fought tooth and nail against even the Obama administration's minimal attempts to reform Cuba policy; Menendez threatened to hold the nominations of presidential appointees -- science advisers whose jobs were completely unrelated to Cuba policy -- hostage over Cuba travel concerns. Even modest goodwill gestures, such as cooperation with the Cuban government to provide medical services in post-earthquake Haiti, have drawn letters of protest from the Cuban-American legislators.
Over recent decades, however, a funny thing has happened: The Cuban exile community, in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, has grown apart from the politicians who represent its interests in Washington. Miami's Cubans may keep voting for Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio, but they no longer agree with them.