Cuban-American Members of Congress: United in Opposition to Obama's Deal

Friday, December 19, 2014
From The Wall Street Journal:

For Cuban-Americans in Congress, the Pain Doesn’t Go Away

Lawmakers in Senate and House React to Obama Plan in Personal Terms

Many politicians today see U.S.-Cuba relations as a niche issue, an obsolete preoccupation of the Cold War. But for a small and influential cadre of Cuban-American members of Congress, it is a personal, painful and urgent concern.

Seven members of Congress—three senators and four House members—have family roots in Cuba and ties to the movement that has fought the Castro regime for a half-century. The group has stepped out as a bipartisan phalanx of opposition to President Barack Obama ’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, putting them at odds with a majority of Americans who, polls say, support the move.

“Cuba is close to home for me both because of my heritage and from the community I live in,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants who has led the opposition to the policy shift announced by Mr. Obama this week. “I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does.”

The group’s united opposition to Mr. Obama is noteworthy because polls show that Cuban-Americans outside Congress are split over the issue, mostly along generational lines. But anti-Castro sentiment is strong and well-organized in the older, politically influential Cuban-American exile community in the crucial swing state of Florida.

There are now three Cuban-American senators, two Republicans and one Democrat—Mr. Rubio, Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.). The four Cuban-Americans in the House include two Republicans—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida—and two Democrats, Reps. Albio Sires of New Jersey and Joe Garcia of Florida. Mr. Garcia lost his re-election bid and will be succeeded by another Cuban-American, Republican Carlos Curbelo, in January. An eighth Cuban-American, Republican Alex Mooney, will also join the House from West Virginia.

They span in age from 34 to 63, but all are children of the Castro-era migration—an influx fueled more by political turmoil than many other waves of migration to the U.S., which were driven by economic aspirations. They have no formal caucus or meeting structure, but many of them are close. Three—Ms. Ros-Lehtinen and Messrs. Rubio and Diaz-Balart—joined together in a news conference in Florida on Thursday to continue their critique of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy.

For these politicians, like many Cuban Americans of that generation, exile was a searing experience for them or their families. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, daughter of an anti-Castro activist, was born in Havana and migrated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old. Mr. Diaz-Balart was born in Florida, but his father was majority leader of the Cuban legislature and a leading anti-Castro figure before migrating to the U.S.

Mr. Curbelo said in an interview that his grandfather was a political prisoner and his great uncle was executed. But those are parts of his biography he doesn’t like to publicize, he said, for fear people will see his support for Cuba sanctions as emotionally driven.

Mr. Rubio is the son of Cubans who migrated to the U.S. in 1956, before Fidel Castro took power. He previously suggested that his parents had fled after Mr. Castro rose to power, but later revised his account amid questions about its accuracy.

Cuban Americans make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, but they are overrepresented in Congress: In the Senate, they make up 3% of the membership and include two potential presidential candidates (Messrs. Cruz and Rubio) and one committee chairman (Mr. Menendez, the current chairman and soon-to-be ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee).

They also run the ideological gamut. Mr. Menendez is a liberal Democrat while Mr. Cruz is a conservative Republican, but they speak almost as one on Cuba policy. Messrs. Menendez and Sires were as forceful in response to Mr. Obama’s policy shift as Mr. Cruz. Only Mr. Garcia refrained from criticism or praise of the policy, saying little more than welcoming the release of American Alan Gross from Cuban prison.

Mr. Diaz-Balart said that the agreement reflects the bond of a group for whom the behavior of a foreign government isn’t an abstract matter of policy, but a reality for family, friends and constituents.

“For us, this is not a hypothetical issue,” said Mr. Diaz-Balart, who disputes polls that suggest Cuban-Americans concern about the regime is waning. “We are in constant communication with people on the island.”

Mr. Rubio, even as he gears up for a possible presidential bid, says he doesn’t worry about political risks of supporting a policy that polls show is a minority view. “I don’t care,” Mr. Rubio said, “if 99% of people in polls disagree with my position. This is my position and I feel passionately about it.”