Originally posted in The Jewish Week
In politics, where you sit often determines where you stand.
Up north in Wisconsin’s largely rural First Congressional District, Rep. Paul Ryan told his constituents it was time to end the trade embargo on Cuba. “If we think engagement works well with China, well, it ought to work well with Cuba. The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy.” As for those who wanted to tighten the embargo, not ease it, “I just don’t agree with them and never have.”
That was then, this is now.
Down south in Florida this weekend he recanted and said he’d had an epiphany. What changed his mind? He’s now running for vice president and campaigning in the rabidly anti-Castro Cuban-American areas of south Florida, critical to Republican hopes of winning that battleground state.
Like Mitt Romney’s 180 turns on abortion, health care, guns and so many other issues, he attributes the shift to an evolution in his thinking, but the reality is both are just tailoring their views to appease extremists in their party.
Ryan said he changed his mind from what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a decade ago as a result of his “friendships” with some of Florida’s leading anti-Castro Republicans. Thanks to them, he said, he now knows “just how brutal the Castro regime is.” No explanation where he’s been for the past 50 years.
And what about Ryan’s old views on Cuba? Not only has he renounced them but has assigned them to Barack Obama and labeled them “appeasement.” Actually, the Obama administration has consistently renewed the trade embargo that Ryan once opposed and now supports, but what apparently Ryan and his friends see as appeasement is the easing of restrictions on family visits and cultural exchanges and rules that make it easier to send money to loved ones in Cuba.
This financial help from visitors and families abroad enables Cubans to purchase luxuries like soap and razors not included on their ration cards.
On my visit to Cuba earlier this year on a Jewish Heritage mission, many Jewish leaders I met with expressed fear that such exchanges, which have been so important in supporting the country’s small and often poor Jewish community, would be cut off by a Romney administration.
They rely on American visitors bringing suitcases filled with such “contraband” as pencils, paper, crayons and toys for children, clothing, vitamins, medicine, books, Judaica and cash contributions.
I saw firsthand how people-to-people exchanges were diminishing anti-American feelings. A frequent visitor told me that signs around Havana that once blazed revolutionary slogans are now promoting tourism.
Reverting to the old Bush-era restrictions, as Romney and Ryan want, would not harm the Castro regime but would set back the progress being made by current cultural exchanges and would be harmful to the country’s small Jewish community.