An unarmed U.S. Hellfire missile winding up in Cuba could give congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates a new weapon to bludgeon President Obama’s legacy-building push to normalize relations between the two countries.
The weapon, originally meant to be used in a NATO exercise, hopscotched through Europe via multiple shipping companies before turning up in Havana, according to The Wall Street Journal.
While the Lockheed Martin-manufactured missile, often fired air-to-ground from helicopters and drones, didn’t contain any live ammunition, it was still loaded with sensors and targeting technology that countries like Russia and China would love to get their hands on.
An official investigation into the embarrassing incident is underway. Whether the inquiry chalks up the blunder to human error, or something more sinister like deliberate espionage, a security error of this magnitude could cause an uproar within the GOP and beyond.
With few exceptions, Republicans have adamantly resisted Obama’s effort to thaw relations between the two former Cold War adversaries.
For example, even though the administration restored diplomatic relations and re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana last summer, the longstanding 1960 trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba remains in place.
Despite pressure from the business community to take action, only Congress could reverse the embargo, which the GOP is loath to do and, thereby handing the president a foreign policy victory.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a GOP presidential contender, in particular has been a harsh critic of Obama’s policy, arguing that it only benefits the repressive government of Cuban President Raúl Castro, which has a bad track record on human rights and open democracy.
And sure enough, the Cuban-American member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the first chime in, sending a letter to the senior State Department official in charge of Cuba relations demanding answers.
“Preventing the proliferation of sensitive U.S. technology is one of the most important duties carried out by the State Department. While your bureau is not the primary entity within the State Department handling these issues, you oversee U.S. policy toward Cuba and interactions with Cuban officials,” Rubio said in a missive to Roberta Jackson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “Thus, the fact that members of Congress are reading about Cuba's possession of a U.S. missile in the newspaper rather than from you or other State Department officials is astounding and inexcusable.”
The White House, meanwhile, jabbed back at Rubio. "My guess is he gets most of his news about what's happening in Congress from the newspaper,” press secretary Josh Earnest said during a press briefing, a nod to Rubio’ poor attendance rate in the Senate.
Obama has indicated he would like to visit Cuba before leaving office in 2017 and urged his critics to have patience with his policy, saying that change will come about on the island gradually.
But patience hasn’t exactly been the watchword in the hotly contested Republican primary.
Besides Rubio, it’s possible that Cuban-American Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who leads the primary polls in Iowa, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, will weigh in on the incident, especially as the entire primary is now focused on who is strongest on national security.