The first Cuban American to serve in the United States Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is known for her fiery opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. It is a passion born of personal experience.Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana, Cuba. When she was seven years old, her family fled to the United States after Castro’s communist revolution.
For awhile, Ros-Lehtinen’s father worked with other Cuban refugees to topple Castro. He later gave up on the idea, however, and focused his attention on raising his chil¬ dren as patriotic Americans. His passion for politics rubbed off on Ros-Lehtinen. He later became one of her closest political advisors.
Ros-Lehtinen attended Florida International University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1975 and a master’s degree in 1987. She later took courses toward her Ph.D. in education at the University of Miami. While she was pursuing her degrees, she founded a private elementary school, the Eastern Academy, where she worked as a teacher and administrator.
In 1982, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, becoming the first Cuban-born woman to hold a seat in the Florida legislature. She served there for four years and subsequently moved up to the state senate. In 1989, she took another big step by running for the U.S. Congress.
She won the seat in a controversial election tainted by racial tension. Lee Atwater, the National Republican party chairman at the time, commented that he wanted her to win the seat because nearly half of the district was Hispanic.
Her opponent, Democrat Gerald Richman, replied that it was uan American seat.’’ Ric.hman’s comment offended Hispanics, who interpreted it to mean they were somehow not American. Ros-Lehtinen captured the seat with 53 percent of the vote, becoming the first Cuban American and the first Hispanic female to serve in Congress.
Ros-Lehtinen has been one of Congress’s most vocal opponents of Castro. She spoke out against Cuba hosting the 1991 Pan-American Games. She also objected to the popular reception given to South African leader Nelson Mandela when he visited Florida because of his strong support for Castro.
In addition, she criticized what she believed was the Clinton administration’s softening stance toward Castro.While in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has done more than crusade against Castro’s government. She has been a crusader for tax reform, as well as a supporter ofwomen’s, Hispanic, and immi¬ grant rights.
She is also a vocal opponent of abortion, and she supports a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.Ros-Lentinen became so popular in her district that she ran unopposed for reelection in 2000. She was elected again in 2002. She is married to Dexter Lehtinen, a former colleague in the Florida legislature, and they have two daughters.