With the Polls Against Them, Cuban-American Republicans Stick to the Laws Against Trade with Cuba

Cuban-Americans are done with the embargo. Their politicians are not.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen speaks during the Oxfam Sisters on the Planet Summit awards ceremony & reception at the Rayburn House Office Building on March 7, 2012 in Washington

Photographer: Kris Connor/Getty Images

A few months ago, when few Americans outside the Obama administration knew of negotiations to start normalizing relations with Cuba, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told me that the embargo was here to stay. She waved off a question about polling that found Americans were increasingly ready to let the embargo end.

"That was such a loaded question," she said, referring to the most recent polling. Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress–and briefly, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee–insisted that voters were responding not to the embargo, but to the idea of taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terror. "They've given up on the embargo because we've codified it. It's now law. They now have to go through Congress."

Her confidence may have been misplaced. Today, after President Barack Obama announced a series of measures to normalize relations with Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen issued a lengthy denunciation and the beginning of a legal argument.

“It is quite possible that this unilateral action by the president without Congressional consultation is in violation of the following U.S. laws: Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, and the Trading with the Enemy Act," said the congresswoman. "The White House attempts to normalize relationships with Cuba without the approval of Congress may be in direct violation of Helms-Burton that specifically states that all political prisoners must be released and free and fair elections must be held before establishing a diplomatic relationship. This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”

At the same time, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was addressing reporters about the steps he would take against Cuba. Why the focus on the law? It has remained unchanged even, as the ground has shifted. The reality of all those Cuba polls was that most Americans, and increasingly most Cuban-Americans, were done with the embargo. This year's annual Cuba poll from Florida International University found that only 48 percent of Cuban-Americans in the state still favored a blockade against the Castros' country. The only age cohort on the "pro" side: Cuban-Americans older than 65. They approved the embargo by a 20-point margin. Everyone younger was opposed, and among those younger than 30, opposition was at 62 percent.

And opposition to diplomatic relations with Cuba–that was downright fringe. Only 32 percent of Cuban-Americans still opposed diplomacy, and only 12 percent of the population younger than 30.

The collapse of support for an embargo made the positions of Cuban-Americans in Congress even more important. For the next two years, at least, any change to the laws mentioned by Ros-Lehtinen will have to be approved by a Republican Congress. Whatever they think, Cuban-Americans are still represented by Republicans (and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat) who oppose Obama's move.

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