By Susan Cornwell and Pascal Fletcher
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For years, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been busy lecturing world leaders over human rights abuses.
Now that she is the new Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she has a chance to try to back up her muscular rhetoric with action.
Last month, Ros-Lehtinen was one of the first U.S. lawmakers to urge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold free elections. Earlier in January, she told visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao to his face that he should free jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace prize winner.
Last year, the Florida Republican hand-delivered a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev telling him Russia's human rights record was "deplorable."
A Cuban-American, Ros-Lehtinen has called former Cuban President Fidel Castro a "dinosaur" and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a "thugocrat." Sometimes she gets as good as she gives; Castro calls her "the ferocious she-wolf" and Chavez has dubbed her an "outlaw."
Her critics pillory Ros-Lehtinen as a right-wing extremist. Her outspokenness surely irks the Obama administration as it conducts global diplomacy, trying to reset relations with Russia, expand trade with China, relax U.S. policy on Cuba and get Egypt's government to do the right thing.
But her admirers find Ros-Lehtinen a breath of fresh air. "In a city where compromise and nuance is often the order of the day, it's refreshing to have someone who will speak their mind, and who will do it based on a set of values that are very American and very honorable," said Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation think-tank.
WHAT CAN ROS-LEHTINEN DO?
The committee chairmanship gives Ros-Lehtinen, 58, a new bully pulpit to advance her causes. But she has been on the committee since she was elected to Congress in 1989, and she has long wielded outsized influence on issues she cares about.
Democrats still control the Senate and White House, limiting Ros-Lehtinen's ability to pursue her agenda. But areas she is expected to emphasize include:
-- Iran. She says she will intensify efforts to implement laws sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program. She can do this through oversight, highlighting countries that may be doing business with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. She also says she will probe growing ties between Iran and Venezuela.
-- Russia. One country she says is assisting Iran is Russia. She is upset the administration entered into a civilian nuclear deal with Russia and plans to introduce a bill requiring congressional approval of future such deals.
-- China. Ros-Lehtinen says Washington must "face the global challenges of a rapidly rising China". She says many others on her committee are also concerned about human rights there and will highlight problems instead of downplaying them.
-- The United Nations. As lawmakers look for ways to reduce U.S. debt, Ros-Lehtinen wants to withhold funding to what she calls the "unaccountable, unreformed" United Nations. She says the U.N. Human Rights Council is "dominated by human rights violators" such as China, Russia and Cuba.
While her panel does not control spending, it gives policy guidance to appropriators who do. The United Nations isn't taking her threats lightly, promising to send Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Washington to talk to lawmakers.
-- Cuba. Ros-Lehtinen can be expected to try to stop any U.S. moves to liberalize treatment of Havana. This has long been at the top of her list of concerns.
Born in Havana in 1952, Ros-Lehtinen's parents fled with her and her brother to Miami in 1960, a year after Castro's revolution that subsequently brought one-party communist rule to her birthplace.
It is perhaps not surprising then that Cuba figures heavily in her world view, and that she is so forthright about human rights. "Her experience with authoritarianism has not been a good one," said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Over the years Ros-Lehtinen has become a kind of Cuban exile nemesis to Castro. She has consistently opposed moves by Obama and her fellow lawmakers to ease the long-running U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, saying such relaxations give oxygen to a dying communist regime.
Her fierce opposition has helped stop lawmakers from lifting the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. Democrats were expected to try to do this during the last few years while they had a House majority, but the matter never came to a vote in the foreign affairs committee.
Ros-Lehtinen's unwavering anti-Castro stance has drawn criticism, including after she appeared to call for Castro's assassination in a 2006 interview for a documentary. She said then that her remarks were spliced together in the film.
She also takes keen interest in the rest of Latin America. She influenced the debate in Washington over the 2009 ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by insisting it was not a coup, but a legal exercise of power. This month she urged the Obama administration not to pressure Honduras into letting Zelaya return home without him facing corruption charges.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)