Thursday, January 8, 2015

U.S.-Cuba meeting set for Jan. 21-22

Jen Psaki
U.S. and Cuban officials plan talks in Havana on Jan. 21-22. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead the U.S. delegation, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. That and other information are in this transcript of Psaki's briefing with reporters today.

QUESTION: Cuba?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Have you any update on the so-called mysterious 53?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t think it’s a mysterious 53, James. But --

QUESTION: Well, they’re mysterious because no one will tell us who they are.

QUESTION: How many have been freed?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Arshad, as I’ve talked about a little bit in here, on days where you weren’t actually in attendance, we --

QUESTION: Have you listed the names of the 53?

MS. PSAKI: We have not.

QUESTION: I didn’t think so.


MS. PSAKI: And I talked about the reason we didn’t list them, which was because we didn’t want to put a target on their backs. The reason that we’re focused on this is getting them released. So I will say --

QUESTION: Hold on, hold on. They already had a target on their backs. That’s why they’re in prison, right?

MS. PSAKI: Well, yes, Matt. But let me give a little bit more information. Some have asked about how to categorize. The people on this list have been arrested for – had been arrested for non-violent activities that are protected most other countries in the world, things that we know internationally are respected and valued – freedom of press, freedom of protest. That is – kind of was the focus of this list.

As I mentioned a couple times, the Cuban Government made the commitment, and we expect them to follow through, on the release of all 53. There have been recent reports that – of a new release. I’m not going to confirm specific individuals on any list. I can confirm that this wasn’t the first released – release of people on the list, as some reports suggested.

QUESTION: When you say “this,” what are you referring to? “This wasn’t the first release.” What is “this”?

MS. PSAKI: There were some reports over the last 24 hours of a – of the first release of individuals. And I’m just noting that that is not the first release of individuals on the list.

QUESTION: So are you telling us that there have been more than – there has been more than one round of releases, as far as you know?

MS. PSAKI: That would be an accurate assumption, yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Is this building concerned that by naming these people under detention that they could be harmed by Cuban authorities?

QUESTION: Or Cuban (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Roz, that this is a case where we – one, this was not part of the negotiation. I think there’s some confusion about that. This was a commitment that the Cuban Government made to release these individuals, a list we provided, and we fully expect them to do so. There were policy changes that the United States Government also announced, regulations that we’ll be putting in place through Commerce and the Treasury Department.

QUESTION: So it was just a coincidence that these were all announced in one big batch by the President? They were completely separate?

MS. PSAKI: I’m conveying, James, that I think, not perhaps you, but some have been grouping together all of this. Yes, but – yes, the --

QUESTION: The President grouped them together in his own statement.

MS. PSAKI: In an announcement about a lot of things that are happening. But in the negotiation, that was about the swap of individuals.

To go back to your question, we made a judgment that the best way to secure the release of these individuals is to not name them publicly. We know who’s on the list. The Cuban Government has assured us that they’re going to release these individuals. We’re encouraging them to do that rapidly, and we’re confident they’ll do that.

QUESTION: What I don’t get – what – though what I don’t understand about this is that if you know who’s on the list, and the Cubans know who’s on the list, how is it – how would it hurt to have the names out their publicly so that the rest of the world can see whether or not the Cubans have lived up to their commitment or not?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, that’s not something we’re doing at this point in time.

QUESTION: Well, that just smacks of --

MS. PSAKI: I’m not ruling that out in the future. But at this point in time, we made a policy judgment this was the right way to go about this.

QUESTION: Well, then can you say that once all 53 have – if and when all 53 are out, they’ll – that you’ll be in a position to name them and say, look, here’s proof that the Cubans lived up to their commitment?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not making any new commitments at this point, Matt. But I’m just conveying that this is a list – we know who’s on the list; the Cubans know who’s on the list. We are certainly conveying to complete that rapidly.

QUESTION: Right. So if – so everybody knows who’s on the list except for --

MS. PSAKI: The Associated Press. I understand your frustration – (laughter) – but --

QUESTION: No, I don’t think it’s just the AP. It’s not – I mean, do the people who are on the list know that they’re on the list?

MS. PSAKI: I think we’ve addressed that question too.

QUESTION: Have you?

MS. PSAKI: I have.

QUESTION: I mean, do the families of the people who – do the families of people who were imprisoned who are on the list know that their loved one is on the list?

MS. PSAKI: Let me reiterate one thing that I said --

QUESTION: I mean --

MS. PSAKI: Let me reiterate something I think that I said yesterday that I think is important here. There’s a focus by all of you on this list of 53. I understand that because it feels like a concrete thing that you’re evaluating. This is one component. There are other – there could be other --

QUESTION: You just said it wasn’t a component.

MS. PSAKI: Let me finish. There could be other arrests. If there are other arrests, we will make the case for those individuals to be released. This is not a – the end. This is the beginning of a process.

QUESTION: Right. But the problem is that we only have one – after the release of Mr. Gross and the intelligence asset and the U.S. release of the three remaining Cuban Five, the only thing that we have – or that the general public or anybody else has – to know whether the Cubans are living up to their commitments to you and to the Pope is whether these 53 are out. And the only way for us to know that is to know who they are.

MS. PSAKI: That’s not correct. What I was conveying before is that our agreement with the Cubans was that we sought the release from a Cuban prison to the United States of a key U.S. intelligence asset who was exchanged for three Cuban intelligence --

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: -- agents jailed in the United States.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: Separately, there was a component of discussing policy changes that we were proposing.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: The Cubans committed to releasing 53 individuals.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: There are a range of steps that we’re going to take because we think it’s in the interest of the United States.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: There are regulations that will be put in place. It’s in our interest to change our diplomatic relationship with Cuba.

QUESTION: Right. I don’t think anyone’s taking issue with the way you’ve laid that out. But the point is, is that this is a – that you set the bar at 53, or a bar at 53, for the Cubans to show that they’re meeting their commitment. And then you say you won’t tell us whether or not they’ve actually met it or not.

MS. PSAKI: Well, one component.

QUESTION: Which is --

MS. PSAKI: And I have told you that they have released some of them, that we are continuing to convey the need to release the rest as rapidly as possible.

QUESTION: So just --

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- continuing on a purely factual basis here --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: You have told us just now that there have been at least two rounds of releases involving these 53 individuals. Can you tell us even ballpark numbers how many those two releases amount to of the 53? Is it half or --

MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand your question. I’m just not going to get into specifics on numbers.

QUESTION: And when you say that there have been reports over the last 24 hours about new releases and that you’re not going to get into confirming them or not, can we just, for the sake of clarity, specify that you are referring to the list of individuals – I think six – that has been published by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba? Is that what we’re talking about?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to confirm who is on the list. What I was trying to do, and maybe not as clearly as I intended, was convey that some headlines suggested that this was the first release of individuals, and that is incorrect.

QUESTION: Can you explain this statement you made about you don’t want to put a target on their backs? Who would use that as a target? I don’t quite understand whose actions you might be fearing.

MS. PSAKI: Well, let me phrase it in a different way, Brad. Our objective and goal here is that these individuals get released. We have made a policy judgment that it is in the interest of that not to release the list publicly in advance of that.

QUESTION: So you’re worried that public pressure would actually harden the Cubans at this point?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to spell it out more clearly. I understand the frustration of why you all would like to see the list, but we need to make a decision about how achieve our goal and not just how to satisfy the desire to see the list.

QUESTION: But I thought this wasn’t your goal, actually. Wasn’t this the Cubans who did this unilaterally?

MS. PSAKI: The Cubans did commit to this, yes. But of course, we’d like to see these individuals released.

QUESTION: But --

QUESTION: Did you share the list with any of the human rights organizations in Cuba who’ve been working for the releases of these people?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into more specifics about --

QUESTION: Because there is some frustration --

MS. PSAKI: -- who is aware of individuals on the list.

QUESTION: There is some frustration from them that they feel that they’ve been shut out of the process, to a certain extent.

MS. PSAKI: Well, there are some opponents of the entire process of changing our approach to Cuba in Cuba and the United States. I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: But Jen, maybe those opponents would be a little less opposed if they knew what – whether or not the Cubans were meeting this commitment.

MS. PSAKI: There are individual names that have been out there publicly, Matt, and I can assure you that the individual activists in Cuba know who those people are.

QUESTION: But when Treasury changes its regulations on Cuba, is it considering doing that in a secret manner?

MS. PSAKI: No, that information will be released publicly, Brad, of course, because businesses --

QUESTION: You would make a policy decision in that case?

MS. PSAKI: Businesses need to be able to have the information and need to be able to know how to implement it.

QUESTION: But don’t individuals need to have information, too?

MS. PSAKI: It’s an entirely different comparison.

QUESTION: Can I just ask --

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. Sure.

QUESTION: -- if you’ve set a date yet for the migration talks --

MS. PSAKI: I have a little more information on that. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana on January – from January 21st through the 22nd – sorry – to take advantage of previously planned migration talks to launch a discussion with the Cuban Government on normalization of diplomatic relations. As all of you know, the migration talks are a – are semiannual meetings which alternate between the United States and Cuba. The United States hosted the last round in July 2014 in Washington, D.C. While the agenda for this round is not yet finalized, the migration talks are bilateral efforts to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration between the United States and Cuba.

As I mentioned, Assistant Secretary Jacobson will lead the delegation. Of course, the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations is certainly going to be a topic of that, and of course issues surrounding that – including the reopening of embassies, requiring certain logistical arrangements, embassy operations, staffing, visa issues – would also be topics as well.

QUESTION: And do you know how many people will be accompanying her in the American delegation?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have details on the delegation quite yet. I expect we will when we get a little bit closer to the date.

QUESTION: And do you know who her immediate sort of counterpart will be on the Cuban side?

MS. PSAKI: I will – we’ll let the Cubans convey that information.

QUESTION: Is there a timeline for the reestablishment of full relations between the two countries?

MS. PSAKI: This is just the beginning of having a discussion about these specific issues, and obviously an opportunity to talk about some of the logistical details. So at this point I’m not going to lay out a timeline.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: And so therefore it would be unrealistic to imagine that an embassy might – could conceivably even be reopened prior to the conclusion of these talks?

MS. PSAKI: I think that’s correct, yes.

QUESTION: Can I just ask about the process that climaxed in the President’s announcement, if you will, with the talks in Canada and at the Vatican having been conducted chiefly by Ben Rhodes and Mr. Zuniga of the National Security Council, and not by professional diplomats associated with this building that has given rise, as you may know, to some speculation to the effect that the Secretary of State or the Department of State was essentially cut out of the loop on this big shift in Cuba policy? What would you say to that?

MS. PSAKI: I would disagree with that with the fact that Secretary Kerry and others here were certainly consulting with everyone from the President on down on these ongoing negotiations and discussions. And --

QUESTION: Can you tell me that again, just so that we don’t have a --

MS. PSAKI: Certainly.

QUESTION: -- that the Christmas chimes in the back – thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Certainly. Secretary Kerry and others were certainly consulting with individuals involved in these negotiations and with the President on down on these – this decision to reopen our diplomatic relations. And also, this has been a topic and a policy that the Secretary has long supported a change in. Right now where our focus is is on implementing this moving forward. And Secretary Kerry, Assistant Secretary Jacobson will certainly be in the lead on that moving forward.

QUESTION: So President Obama, Ben Rhodes, the White House National Security Council staff were keeping John Kerry and his staff in the loop at all points along the way in this secret process?

MS. PSAKI: Yeah, there have been many discussions behind the scenes about these – the ongoing negotiations.

QUESTION: Was there a tactical decision in having people who might be best described as political operatives carrying out the work because there might – it might have been easier to do so?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, to be clear, Ricardo is a Foreign Service officer who has decades of experience and just happens to be detailed over at the White House at this point in time. Ben Rhodes is one of the President’s closest national security advisors, so I’d hardly characterize them in the way you did. There was a decision made to have these two individuals lead the talks. Obviously, there was a successful outcome. The Secretary was supportive of that, certainly wanted to see a change in our relationship with Cuba and a change in our policy approach. And our focus at this point in time is how we implement that moving forward.

QUESTION: A successful outcome?

QUESTION: Well, let’s contrast it with – well, let me finish.

QUESTION: It’s not over yet.

QUESTION: Let me finish.

MS. PSAKI: Well, in terms of an agreement on the swap of individuals, yes, that’s a successful outcome.

QUESTION: But to contrast it with the Secretary’s ongoing work with Mideast peace, with going in every so often on the Iran nuclear talks, was there a tactical decision made to carry out something which the Administration has long said it wanted to achieve without having so much public scrutiny ahead of it and possibly scuttling the outcome that we have right now?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Roz, to that question – and obviously it’s better posed to the White House – but clearly there was a decision made to do these talks privately in order to achieve the – “outcome” maybe is an overstated word, but to achieve a different path or a different way forward. And so that decision was made, certainly, so that it wouldn’t have the ups and downs that public scrutiny often does.

QUESTION: Well, what – can you just walk us through --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: -- the thinking that concludes that this is best conducted by two officials on the National Security Council and not by the diplomatic corps?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, James, it’s important to remember that the national security team works as a team, and there are negotiations the Secretary leads, there are negotiations that sometimes the NSC has more of a role on. There are discussions that the Department of Defense leads on. We all work together and play different roles, and there are individuals who also span across different agencies. So this is – this was a process the Secretary was comfortable with. We certainly are now focused on the path forward, and I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can I just make sure --

MS. PSAKI: I have to go in a few minutes here. Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Can I just make sure that I understand, though, that you’re not expecting that the meeting that Assistant Secretary Jacobson has on the 21st and 22nd is going to be the end? This is just the beginning of --

MS. PSAKI: Correct. That is the right way to think about it.

QUESTION: And so you would anticipate there would be additional meetings after that on the same – on the normalization, not just on migration (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI: That’s right. I would anticipate it’s going to be an ongoing process.

QUESTION: And they would set it – I mean, like, what, once a month or something they would meet? Or --

MS. PSAKI: I don’t know yet. I’m sure they’ll discuss that as part of the meetings when they’re in Cuba.

QUESTION: One more thing. I apologize --

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- if you said this at some point when I haven’t been here --

MS. PSAKI: That’s okay; go ahead.

QUESTION: -- but can you now or can you take the question of when was the last visit to Havana by an official?

MS. PSAKI: I actually – I have that for you.

QUESTION: Do you? Great.

MS. PSAKI: I do.

QUESTION: Of equal rank to Secretary or higher rank that Secretary Jacobson.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, the last visit – I don’t know if this – I’m doing my best here to answer it.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MS. PSAKI: So the highest ranking official from the Department of State to have visited Cuba on official travel in recent years was Roberta Jacobson when she was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in 2011. Since that time, Department of State practice has been to limit high-level visits to the deputy assistant secretary of state level. Before that, Craig Kelly, who was the PDAS before Roberta Jacobson, traveled on February 2010 when he was also principal deputy assistant secretary.

QUESTION: So this level then --

QUESTION: Yeah. No, but – but the real question, I think, is: This is the highest level U.S. visit since when?

MS. PSAKI: We can certainly look into that.

QUESTION: Can you? I’m sure the --

MS. PSAKI: Seek some information from the --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: A good friend in the Historian’s Office --

QUESTION: There – well, there is a school of thought that believes that an assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere visited in 1977 --

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: --in the Carter Administration.

MS. PSAKI: We will check on that – well, we’ll seek some help from our friends in the Historian’s Office.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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