U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan got the Cuban exile seal of approval Saturday at a campaign rally in Little Havana where he pledged to hold a hard line against the Castro regime.
The Republican vice presidential candidate did not mention that he once opposed the U.S. trade embargo against the island, but he pointed to his change of heart — prompted by Miami’s current and former Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
“They’ve given me a great education — lots of us in Congress — about how we need to clamp down on the Castro regime,” Ryan told supporters at the Versailles restaurant. “We will be tough on Castro, tough on [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez.”
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, has voted against the embargo at least three times. The Midwest tends to see trade opportunities in agriculture with Cuba.
Ryan began supporting the embargo in 2007 as he started to ascend the House Republican leadership ranks. And on Saturday he began criticizing President Barack Obama’s policies toward the island. The Obama administration has made it easier for families and certain groups to travel and send money to Cuba.
Ryan said he and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would take a different approach.
“We will not keep practicing this policy of appeasement,” Ryan said. “We will be tough on this brutal dictator.”
The crowd burst into applause. Hundreds of people packed the restaurant despite the strong morning rain showers, which left attendees drenched and forced organizers to move the rally into cramp quarters indoors.
Ryan couldn’t pose for the traditional outdoor photo-op ordering from the Versailles pick-up window. But he ordered a small cup of Cuban coffee inside, where he was joined by Ros-Lehtinen, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Craig Romney, Romney’s youngest son. Craig Romney, who was a Mormon missionary in Chile, speaks Spanish and is frequently featured in political advertisements for his father airing in Miami.
Bush, too, greeted the rally in Spanish, praising Romney’s family values, joking about the weather and teaching Ryan how to say rain shower in Spanish. ( Aguacera, Bush said, though technically the word is aguacero.)
“I’m sick and tired of an America that has a cloud of pessimism over it,” Bush said.
Abuzz with energy, the crowd broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” as Ryan posed for photographs and shook hands. A couple of protesters briefly interrupted his remarks, but they were drowned out by pro-Ryan cheers.
Ryan tried to make an argument against Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan of “hope and change,” slamming the president for telling Univision in an interview at the University of Miami earlier this week that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.”
“Why do we send presidents to the White House in the first place?” Ryan said as the audience laughed. “We send presidents to change and fix the mess in Washington. And if this president has admitted that he can’t change Washington, then you know what? We need to change presidents.”
And Ryan, who from Miami was headed to Orlando, stressed his ties to Florida, endorsing tarpon and bone fishing “in the back bay of Islamorada.” He introduced his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, a snowbird who lives part of the year in Lauderdale by the Sea.