A sharp Herald item on Ryan’s surprising Cuba record

Keyed to local community, paper digs up veep pick's past opposition to embargo

FLORIDA — Tucked somewhere into the recesses of the hidden place where only those with knowledge of the secret handshake can go, are the many files accumulated during the vetting process of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney certainly pored over votes Ryan cast during 14 years in Congress as they were preparing to select Romney’s running mate. So one can only wonder if this little tidbit, picked up by The Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo, was noticed by the campaign’s inquisitors—Ryan voted at least twice in opposition to our country’s embargo with Cuba.

While nearly all of the nation’s media focused, as they should have, on Ryan’s views on overhauling the federal budget and Medicare, Caputo took the time to peek into an issue that is at the forefront of political interests of South Florida’s Cuban-Americans. When he did, it exploded.

Caputo acknowledges that he looked into Ryan’s positions on the Cuban embargo at the suggestion of sources. At 4:39 p.m. on Saturday, less than eight hours after Romney stood on the U.S.S. Wisconsin in Virginia to announce that Ryan was joining the Republican ticket, Caputo posted a 410-word entry on the Herald’s “Naked Politics” blog that opened with:

When Republican candidates typically come to Miami, they stoke anti-Castro sentiment by promising a to work toward a free Cuba, usually by pledging support for the Cuban embargo.

Is Paul Ryan, the newly minted Republican vice-presidential pick, one of those candidates?

The Wisconsin Congressman has voted at least three times in opposition to the embargo. A handful of current and former Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of bucking their own party, told The Miami Herald that Ryan’s record on the Cuban embargo might disappoint Cuban voters, who comprise 72 percent of the GOP electorate in Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county.

Caputo goes on to report that after voting against the embargo in 2001 and 2004, Ryan switched positions in 2007. (The post’s headline, “Flip-flop or evolution?,” evokes some of the more loaded terms of this election cycle.) But then, as recently as 2009:

Ryan still seemed opposed to the embargo when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “If we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to the embargo is rooted in the politics of the Midwest, which sees trade opportunities with Cuba.

The Romney campaign suddenly found itself defending Ryan on an unexpected issue. The campaign pushed back hard with statements issued by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other prominent Cuban-Americans.

Univision News described the Romney campaign’s damage-control efforts this way:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Monday that his running mate Paul Ryan supports the U.S. embargo on Cuba in an effort to clear up a bubbling controversy over his position.

Ryan caught flak from some in the Cuban-American exile community for voting against the embargo as a member of Congress in 2001 and 2004. The community is a powerful force in South Florida GOP politics that strongly backs the embargo, so Ryan’s votes had caused somewhat of an uproar even though his stance evolved and he opposed a measure that would have weakened the embargo in 2007.

Romney appeared on Miami’s Radio MambĂ­—a Spanish-language station catered to the exile community—and explained that Ryan changed his position after meeting with South Florida Cuban lawmakers Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

“They convinced him that the embargo is an important effort to put pressure on the Castro brothers,” Romney said. “His position is like mine, he wants to maintain pressure on the Cuban regime.”

Caputo’s report also prompted a flurry of follow-up stories and commentary about the embargo issue, with The Atlantic, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Foreign Policy, CNN, NBC Latino, and others all flagging the news.

One of the complaints often heard from that national media is that reporters get little time with the candidates. And if you really want to tick them off, let a campaign give local media an interview with the candidates. Unfortunately, when national reporters following Romney or President Obama do get a chance to question them, the questions are often predictable and have little to do with issues that might affect the outcome in a swing state.

Yes, Medicare and Social Security are important. Both those issues are obvious. This episode is a good example of news getting made by a local reporter who understands the issues that matter in his community. The national media, too, would do itself a service if it better understood the issues that are peculiar to individual states—such as the Cuban embargo.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.