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Will Immigration Tragedy Show Congressional Cubans The Castro-ness Of Trump?

Gregory Bull
AP via Miami Herald
A Central American girl waits with her family at the U.S. border at Tijuana, Mexico, to request asylum.


I’m a critic of U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s push to isolate Cuba, which I consider an outdated means of achieving change on the communist island. But I’m an admirer of the Miami Republican in most other regards – especially her fundamental decency.

She reminded me why last year, when she didn’t show up in Little Havana for President Trump’s get-tough-on-Cuba show. Sources close to her tell me she found the Republican president’s “rollback” of U.S.-Cuba relations about as meaningful as one of his late-night tweets. More important, she really didn’t want to be in the same camera frame with Trump – a guy she seems to find as bereft of fundamental decency as most Americans do.

In fact, I’m guessing Ros-Lehtinen sees in Trump and his base some of the same Orwellian decency deficit she sees in totalitarian regimes like Cuba’s. Especially this week, when Trump’s gratuitous cruelty toward migrant families showcased how thuggish he and his administration can be.

READ MORE: Why Central America's Volcanic Tragedies Are Stronger Than Trump's Immigration Logic

That’s why Ros-Lehtinen sounded genuine this week when she called Trump’s billy-club order to separate migrant parents and children at the border “a cruel policy that needlessly subjects [them] to emotional and psychological harm.” She at least sounded less awkward and more believable than her fellow GOP Miami congressmen and Cuban-Americans, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, did when they issued their own denunciations.

Ros-Lehtinen, you see, hasn’t made the same Faustian bargain with Trump that Diaz-Balart and Curbelo have.

Will Miami's congressional Cubans now realize Trump isn't just another conservative to horse-trade with – that his show is more reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes they've spent their careers confronting in this hemisphere?

Ros-Lehtinen (who is not seeking re-election this year) has kept Trump at arm’s length from the moment he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 calling Mexicans “rapists.” But Diaz-Balart, whose Cuba isolation dogma is even fiercer than Ros-Lehtinen’s, succumbed to Trump’s Mephistophelian charm. He effectively struck a deal to back a bigoted, truth-trashing demagogue in return for a reversal of former President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba.

Curbelo too saw in Trump a lever for overriding normalization. So he, Diaz-Balart and another Miami Cuban-American, GOP Florida Senator Marco Rubio, gleefully joined Trump onstage in Little Havana last summer to announce that great-again America was going to make Cuba cry uncle again.

What they got instead was a pretty mild executive order making it somewhat harder for Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba – hardly the death blow to the Castro regime they’d urged.

What they really got, especially Diaz-Balart and Rubio, were questions about whether they’d sold out to an extremist, nationalist bully who increasingly reminds the world of…the Castros. Or Hugo Chávez. Or Daniel Ortega. Or any of the authoritarian populists they decry in this hemisphere.


In the New York Times this week, conservative columnist David Brooks called out Trumpistas for betraying the age-old conservative struggle against the “statist” mindset. Brooks calls it the “brutalist and inhumane” willingness of bureaucratic regimes, like Cuba’s, to crush the individual for the sake of their abstract dogmas.

“This is exactly what the Trump immigration policies are doing,” Brooks wrote – ripping babies from parents at the border to serve the nativist statism Trump has established. Or as Miami’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski put it, “weaponizing” migrant children in order to leverage the $25 billion border wall Trump demands Congress give him (and have Mexico pay for).

To his credit, Diaz-Balart – who, like Ros-Lehtinen, has a pro-immigrant record – called Trump’s family separation policy “unacceptable” and “unconscionable” this week. Curbelo branded it “a tragedy.”

Credit Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP via Miami Herald
AP via Miami Herald
President Trump signs an order to keep together undocumented migrant families detained at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (left) and Vice President Mike Pence look on.

Still, after this week, will they so blithely look at Trump from a perspective of political back-scratching – or from one of moral conscience-exploring, as their colleague Ros-Lehtinen has?

Will they realize now that Trump isn’t just another conservative to horse-trade with – that his show is more reminiscent of the deceitful statist regimes they’ve spent their careers confronting?

Granted, the problem of undocumented migrant families stopped at the border bedeviled previous administrations too, especially Obama’s. But they didn’t tear those families apart. All this week Trump lied by insisting his family separation policy was just part of federal law. Then, facing global outrage, he admitted the lie and signed an order keeping those families together again (though he vowed to keep them detained together).

Ros-Lehtinen looked vindicated.

Her Miami colleagues were left trying not to look implicated.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.