Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Is Proud to Be American

Article excerpt

The sixth-term congresswoman -- a Cuban immigrant and the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress -- says we all should have a greater appreciation for America and her principles.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen first arrived in the United States at the age of 7 with her parents fleeing Castro's communist dictatorship. At 30, she became the first Hispanic elected to the Florida Legislature. And in 1989, winning the House seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Congress.

Ros-Lehtinen is a conservative who voted for each of the four articles of impeachment against President Clinton. "Impeachment was an important step for us to take as a nation because we've got to stand for the rule of law," she explains to Insight. She's also independent and refused to sign the GOP "Contract With America," fearing its welfare provisions would harm legal immigrants living in her district. Ros-Lehtinen eloquently defends immigration, arguing that the vast majority of immigrants don't come to America for handouts, as some critics charge, but to participate in America's freedom and the enormous productivity of this country, frequently becoming valued citizens.

Insight: Often it takes a naturalized American to see how great this country is and to be able to express it in words.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: It's so big, so huge, this concept of what America is, and I think naturalized Americans really do have a special understanding of that. For instance, I came here without knowing a word of English. That I'm now a member of Congress says a lot more about the United States of America than it does about me. This really is the land of opportunity.

We tend to throw out cliches like "the most free country" and "the most democratic nation," and we forget what is real and tangible about America for oppressed people throughout the world. We take it for granted and we take it lightly and we do not understand the ramifications of America, the symbol everywhere of a free country. It has incredible, magnificent layers of meaning, and I know this as a naturalized American who enjoys speaking at naturalization ceremonies. I get goose bumps every time.

Insight: You've been an outspoken opponent of what might be called a "soft" approach toward Castro -- trade with him, establishing cultural ties with his dictatorship, playing baseball with Cuban teams as a means of making his tyranny come tumbling down.

IRL: Oh yes, that's been the Clinton approach. Hey, maybe we misunderstood the dictator. For 40 years we've been doing it the wrong way. He's just a poor, misunderstood, scared little boy. He just wants to play ball with us, so let's take him out to the ball game!

It's very sad to see that we have a strong, forceful hand toward dictatorships on the right, as well we should, yet somehow for dictatorships on the left, we have this romantic notion that maybe we should trade them to death, just trade them into change, and it's never going to happen.

It's not an ideal world in Cuba. No trade or enterprise you enter into with Castro's dictatorship leads to change. He's the first to make this clear. He doesn't even try to spin his way out of responsibility for his dictatorship. He stands pat: Socialism or death! There will be no reforms, he says. It's my way or no way. He can't be any clearer.

Insight: What should be U.S. policy toward Cuba?

IRL: We don't want to have a romantic view of how Cuba used to be! What we want is for the Cuban people to be able to express their opinions freely, have free elections and elect their own government. If the Cold War is over, nobody has told the people in Cuba. It's still a living hell each and every day, and as long as there are foreign investors willing to keep Castro in power, the Cold War never will be over for the Cuban people.

Every raft that washes ashore carries another desperate soul seeking freedom from that workers' paradise. …