How Congress will tackle Latin America policy with fewer Cuban Americans in office

The departure of Miami lawmakers Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo leaves Congress with two fewer experts on Latin America foreign policy.

But the remaining Cuban Americans will still carry clout in foreign affairs.

Three Cuban Americans will occupy top slots on the House and Senate committees that oversee Western Hemisphere foreign policy when the new Congress convenes in January. Marco Rubio will continue to lead the Western Hemisphere Senate Subcommittee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez will be the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires, a Democrat, will lead the House subcommittee with Latin America oversight after Democrats won control of the House. Incoming Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell named a chief of staff with State Department experience, signaling that foreign policy will be a priority for the first-year Ecuadorean American lawmaker.

The leadership continuity, combined with what Democrats and Republicans see as a willingness by the Trump administration to engage more in the region, leaves Washington’s experts on Latin America hopeful that the next two years will not see the region pushed to the back-burner in Washington.

“Primarily with Latin America it’s about getting people to care about it, getting people to care about Western Hemisphere affairs” Rubio told the Miami Herald. “I think we have an opportunity to partner with Mexico to deal with some of the causes of migration coming out of Central America. I think we have a chance to partner with Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Argentina and others in South America to deal with some of the challenges posed by the migratory crisis in Venezuela.”

Both Republicans and Democrats working on Latin American issues said the biggest issue in the region that Congress will need to address is the ongoing exodus of people from Venezuela and what that will mean for the stability of Colombia in particular. Rubio and Menendez are trying to get the administration to extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans already living in the U.S., though the Trump administration has been resistant to policies that expand immigration.

“The reality is that you have a cancer and that cancer is in Havana, Managua, Caracas,” said Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the only Cuban American from South Florida left in the House of Representatives. “But you’ve got Ambassador [John] Bolton…and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, I think that’s good. The Western Hemisphere chair is going to be Albio Sires, who is kind of part of this whole team of musicians, so in that sense I feel good there.”

Sires is an ally of Florida Cuban Americans, who are generally opposed to expanding economic ties with Cuba without democratic concessions from the Cuban government. He’s recently spoken with Vice President Mike Pence about priorities in the region, and said that there are people in the Trump administration who listen.

But the president’s disparaging remarks about migrants from Central America has hurt America’s credibility in the region at large, he said.

“You can’t bring any remedy to the region if you’re going to call the people criminals,” Sires said. “You just can’t do that. Somebody’s got to tell the president to stop that.”

Sires, who has been in office since 2006, said he’s learned a lot from Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina to lead the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I will try to continue to emphasize the importance of focusing more on the Western Hemisphere than we have in the past,” Sires said. “The emphasis is going to be more on opening the eyes of the administration to realize that we need to have some sort of investment in this region.”

Rubio also said Rick Scott, newly elected to the Senate, will play a role in Latin America issues, and several lawmakers have said that Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement could make it easier for them to get important bills passed. Corker, the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not in favor of imposing a ban on Venezuelan oil imports to the United States, something South Florida lawmakers uniformly support.

“Sometimes what we do unifies the chavistas,” Corker said last year, referring to followers of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Curbelo, a critic of the Trump administration, said “in Latin America they [the administration] have delivered and they’ve been a lot more effective and engaged than the Obama administration, which was happy to be a bystander to everything that was happening in Venezuela.

“I know the Vice President is very in tuned to Latin America and has developed relationships with pro-American leaders there,” Curbelo added.

And tough talk and action on Latin America over the next two years could pay off politically in Florida, where Scott and incoming Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won narrow statewide victories this year after campaigning heavily on an anti-socialist message in Cuban and Venezuelan communities in South Florida. Trump almost certainly needs to win Florida in 2020 to win a second term.

“I think Rick Scott wins because he understands, not just that he campaigns, but that he understands and advocates for the issues that are important for that very diverse community,” Diaz-Balart said. “Florida has a very diverse Latino community…and Ron DeSantis gets it too. When it matters, the Cubans turn out and they vote Republican.”

But the loss of Ros-Lehtinen, the lawmaker with the most experience, connections and arguably the biggest platform in the region besides Rubio, will hurt.

“Anytime you lose people that have their knowledge and interest on the topic, and in the case of Ileana her influence, of course it’s going to have an impact,” Rubio said. “It’ll put more pressure on other members of our delegation to share our views.”