By Russell Berman - 05/30/12 12:50 AM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Tuesday toured the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a trip that carried personal and political significance for the rising Republican star.
Rubio’s daylong excursion marked the first time he had set foot in the country that his parents fled, and it came at a time when the freshman senator is at the center of vice presidential speculation.
Rubio was traveling to Cuba in his official capacity as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he received briefings from officials at the detention center and the U.S. naval base that houses it.
In a televised press conference upon his return to Miami, Rubio deflected questions about the vice presidency.
Rubio said the trip was first planned for last August but was postponed when his mother became ill.
The terrorist detention complex at the Guantánamo base is the site of the military trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. After an arraignment earlier this month, the military tribunal judging Mohammed will hold its next hearing in June.
The visit is the latest high-profile bid by Rubio to bolster his foreign policy and national-security résumé as he weathers the scrutiny that comes with being a serious contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination. He delivered a major foreign-policy speech at the Brookings Institution last month, and he is drafting an immigration reform plan aimed at satisfying conservatives and attracting Hispanics on the hot-button issue.
While Rubio’s youth — he turned 41 on Monday — and popularity among conservatives could help Mitt Romney energize the Republican base in November, his inexperience on the national stage and in foreign affairs could be a drawback for the risk-averse presumptive nominee. Rubio has kept himself near the top of the headlines in recent weeks, offering a reminder to the Romney camp of the potential for the charismatic Rubio to overshadow the party’s standard-bearer if he is chosen for the ticket.
GOP strategists said Tuesday that Rubio’s trip to Cuba was a natural move for a top party prospect in only his second year in the Senate.
“This is just an example of him broadening his experience,” said Christian Ferry, a Republican consultant who served as a deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid in 2008. “Does this make him a better candidate for the vice presidency? I would have to say yes.”
Numerous Senate and House members have toured the Guantánamo facility in the decade since the United States began using it to house suspected terrorists it detained in conflicts overseas. President Obama signed an executive order to close the complex in his first days in office in 2009, but amid opposition from Congress, his administration has failed to keep his campaign pledge.
“I think it’s important for us not to forget who’s detained in Guantánamo,” Rubio said in Miami. “These are enemies of the United States who have been actively engaged in attacks against the homeland and abroad, many of whom are directly responsible for the death and suffering of thousands of Americans.”
Rubio’s parents fled Cuba in 1956 in the years just before Fidel Castro took full control of the country. He did not get to visit Cuban territory beyond the U.S. naval base, and said he had little time to reflect on the island that his parents left.
“Certainly it was touching to be able to fly over the island from a distance and see it and know that it’s the land that saw your parents and your grandparents born,” Rubio said. “And it’s a place I hope to visit one day soon — a free Cuba, one where the people of Cuba can choose their own leaders and choose their own future.”