For years, US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been busy lecturing world leaders over human rights abuses.
Now that she is the new Republican chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, she has a chance to try to back up her muscular rhetoric with action.
Last month, Ros-Lehtinen was one of the first US lawmakers to urge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold free elections. Earlier last month, she told visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to his face that he should free jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), a Nobel peace prize winner.
Last year, the Florida Republican hand-delivered a letter to -Russian President Dmitry Medvedev telling him Russia’s human rights record was “deplorable.”
A Cuban-American, Ros-Lehtinen has called former Cuban president Fidel Castro a “dinosaur” and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a “thugocrat.” Sometimes she gets as good as she gives; Castro calls her “the ferocious she-wolf” and Chavez has dubbed her an “outlaw.”
Her critics pillory Ros-Lehtinen as a right-wing extremist. Her outspokenness surely irks the administration of US President Barack Obama as it conducts global diplomacy, trying to reset relations with Russia, expand trade with China, relax US policy on Cuba and get Egypt’s government to do the right thing.
However, her admirers find Ros-Lehtinen a breath of fresh air.
“In a city where compromise and nuance is often the order of the day, it’s refreshing to have someone who will speak their mind, and who will do it based on a set of values that are very American and very honorable,” said Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation think tank.
The committee chairmanship gives Ros-Lehtinen, 58, a new bully pulpit to advance her causes. However, she has been on the committee since she was elected to Congress in 1989 and she has long wielded outsized influence on issues she cares about.
While her panel does not control spending, it gives policy guidance to appropriators who do. The UN isn’t taking her threats lightly, promising to send UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Washington to talk to lawmakers.
Born in Havana in 1952, Ros-Lehtinen’s parents fled with her and her brother to Miami, Florida, in 1960, a year after Castro’s revolution that subsequently brought one-party communist rule to her birthplace.
It is perhaps not surprising then that Cuba figures heavily in her world view, and that she is so forthright about human rights.
“Her experience with authoritarianism has not been a good one,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Over the years Ros-Lehtinen has become a kind of Cuban exile nemesis to Castro. She has consistently opposed moves by Obama and her fellow lawmakers to ease the long-running US trade embargo against Cuba, saying such relaxations give oxygen to a dying communist regime.
Her fierce opposition has helped stop lawmakers from lifting the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. Democrats were expected to try to do this during the last few years while they had a House majority, but the matter never came to a vote in the foreign affairs committee.
Ros-Lehtinen’s unwavering anti-Castro stance has drawn criticism, including after she appeared to call for Castro’s assassination in a 2006 interview for a documentary. She said then that her remarks were spliced together in the film.