Thursday, April 16, 2015
Background briefing on Cuba
Special BriefingSenior State Department Official
March 13, 2015
MODERATOR: Thank you, Tony, and thank you to all of the
participants who have called in today. This is a background call
on Cuba. I think you all have seen the statements that have come
out just recently from the White House and from the State
Department. This call will be on background, so no names or
titles, please. But just for your information, we have with us
three speakers. They are [names and titles withheld]. Henceforth
they will be senior Administration officials one, two, and three.
We also have two colleagues from [titles withheld] to respond to
questions, but they won’t be making introductory
So with that, we will also be taking questions at the end.
We’ll try to get to as many as we can. And without further
ado, let me pass it over to our first speaker.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, very well. Thank you
very much. I’m going to be very brief here because
you’ll have seen the announcements and so forth and have
seen some of the background. So just to recap very quickly, as
part of his December 17th announcement on policy changes towards
Cuba, President Obama asked the Department of State to undertake
a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of
Cuba was first designated a state sponsor of terrorism
in 1982, and this review was sought by the President in
connection with and of updating the information that we had about
Cuba and our overall relationship with Cuba.
And after a careful review of Cuba’s record, which was
informed by the intelligence community as well as insurance
– excuse me – assurances provided by the Cuban
Government, the Secretary of State concluded that Cuba met the
conditions for rescinding its designation as a state sponsor of
terrorism and forwarded that recommendation – the
Secretary of State forwarded that recommendation to the President
last week and recommended he submit to Congress the statutorily
required report and certification. Today, this afternoon, the
President submitted to Congress that required report and
certification indicating the Administration’s intent to
rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of
To recap and to provide a little context, a country remains a
state sponsor of terrorism until its designation is rescinded in
accordance with criteria that are established by statute. In
Cuba’s case, the – those criteria require the
President to submit a report to Congress at least at a minimum of
45 days before the proposed rescission would take effect,
justifying it and certifying, number one, that the Government of
Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism
during the preceding six-month period and, number two, that the
Government of Cuba has provided assurances that it will not
support acts of international terrorism in the future.
As President Obama noted recently in a separate media interview
and in comments subsequently to that, we’re going to
continue to have differences with Cuba, including some profound
differences on issues that are important in terms of values of
U.S. support for democracy and human rights. However, those
differences are not necessarily going to be a factor in whether
or not Cuba is a designee as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in
their own country, whether they have relationships with countries
that are adversaries of the United States are not necessarily a
factor in making this determination. This determination was based
on the facts and the statutory criteria.
So with that, I’m going to turn to speaker number two.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much. Let me
just say that Secretary Kerry has also put out a statement today,
and my colleague and I and many of us in the State Department
were part of the process that we undertook at the
President’s direction when he asked the Secretary of State
to undertake the review of Cuba’s listing on the state
sponsor of terrorism list. We did so well within the period of
time that the President gave to us, as we said we would. But that
process was extremely rigorous. Many people asked why it was
taking so long, and I think that we can attest to the fact that
that is because it was done with every caution and every care to
ensure that we looked at as much information as possible and that
we took everything into account.
But we also reflect the fact in the report that went to the White
House that the world has changed and it has changed in particular
in Latin America, as the Secretary said today, when Cuba was
originally designated because of its efforts to promote
revolution around the Hemisphere, and those things have changed.
And now we felt that it was time to make this recommendation
based on the particular criteria of the law and the assurances
that we have gotten from the Cuban Government.
We did so, as I say, with a lot of care and thought behind it,
and my colleague will go into the process on that, but we felt
very confident that in the end of that process, the
recommendation that went forward to the Secretary, and then from
the Secretary to the President, was one that reflected the facts
and all of the care and investigation and coordination that we
could do within the State Department and our colleagues
throughout the U.S. Government.
Let me turn it over to number three.
MODERATOR: All right. Yes, we’ll go to our third speaker
now. Please go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Okay. I don’t have
much to add to what my two colleagues have already put forward. I
just would echo some of the comments made by [Senior
Administration Official Two] to underscore the care and the rigor
that went into the review, which was done both with respect to
the statutory requirements as well as, of course, the available
information that we had, and all of the other relevant care and
concern that [Senior Administration Official Two] mentioned
already. And I think, again, if there are further questions that
anyone has with regard to any of that, we can certainly try to
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you to our speakers. Operator, if you
could remind participants now how they get in the queue if they
have questions they would like to answer?
OPERATOR: Thank you, [Moderator]. And ladies and gentlemen, if
you do wish to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your
touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you have
been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue
at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, for your
questions, you may queue up by pressing *1.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I think we’re ready to go
to the first question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you, [Moderator]. That will come from Matthew Lee
with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot. I just have two brief ones. What kind
of assurances did the Cubans provide about not sponsoring
anything in the future? I recall when Libya came off the list,
there was a big public declaration that the Qadhafi regime made
on the state television and radio, and pretty much the same with
the North Koreans when they came off in 2008. So what –
because maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen
anything from the Cubans on this.
And then secondly, your colleague Ben Rhodes tweeted that, put
simply, Cuba’s coming off of – President
Obama’s moving to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors
of terrorism because it isn’t a state sponsor of
terrorism. A lot of people make the argument that they
haven’t been a state sponsor of terrorism for years, let
alone not just the last six months. So when could you have
actually made this determination? When did Cuba really stop
becoming a state sponsor of terrorism? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me talk about the first
one, which is just to say, Matt, that we did get assurances from
the Cuban Government. [Senior Administration Official Three] can
go into the language in particular, but the Cubans have for a
long time shown us many, many, many speeches by their leaders,
both Fidel and Raul, in which they have rejected terrorism; many
instances, in fact, of terrorist acts that they have decried
publicly, I think the latest probably being the Charlie Hebdo
incident in France. But certainly, there are lots of incidents
that they can point to. And in terms of commitments for the
future, they point to both statements by their leadership and
ratifications of international treaties, and the assurances that
they gave us.
In terms of when could we have taken them off the list,
that’s a hypothetical that we just don’t answer. We
did this review now and we are taking them off the list now.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, I would add just a
couple of things to what was just said. I think in the first
instance, the assurances they provide were fairly wide-ranging
and fairly high-level. So without getting into the nitty-gritty
specifics of all of it, they addressed the key elements that we
know in the past have been a factor. And as my colleague
indicated, they also addressed the pledge or the assurances that
they will no longer support acts of terrorism in the future, and
that’s also an important component of this evaluation. So
those are the two points I would highlight there.
With respect to – I just want to make one thing clear.
There is no periodic review of state sponsors of terrorism.
It’s not something we undertake on a regularized basis.
That’s true of all of the countries that are listed on the
state sponsors of terrorism list. We undertook this particular
review at the request of the President, and that is why at this
moment the review has been successfully completed.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re ready to move on to the next
OPERATOR: Thank you. That’ll come from Arshad Mohammed
with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Two questions. One, to follow up on Matt’s
question, having just completed this exhaustive review, when was
the last instance of terrorism that the Government of Cuba or the
state of Cuba sponsored? Secondly, what are the implications of
removal once the 45-day period ends from the state sponsors of
terrorism list? I believe there are four, but I want to make
sure. One is that being on the list entails a ban on
armed-related – on arms exports and sales, two are
controls on dual-use items, three are prohibitions on economic
assistance including just direct assistance, and then four are
other financial restrictions, including requiring the United
States to oppose loans in the World Bank and other international
Am I missing anything? Are there any other significant
restrictions that are now going to be dropped on Cuba once the
45-day period expires and they’ve actually been dropped?
And I’m very keen to know the answer to the first question
of when was the last instance of terrorism that the Cuban state
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, again, just to
address this, I don’t – the evaluation of whether a
state sponsors terrorism is not based simply on an act of
terrorism; it is sustained support for international terrorism.
So it’s a different quantity than what I think
you’re referring to. So I wouldn’t characterize
anything specific to the question that you asked.
But on the second set of questions that you asked with respect to
the various statutes that govern the international terrorism
specific designations, there are three laws actually that we have
to look at with respect to acts of international terrorism and
the designation process. I won’t go into the specific
laws. If we need that, we can certainly provide that. But
– and they do have some of the implications that you
But I would also – and [Senior Administration Official
Two] and [Senior Administration Official Four] may be able to
speak to this more – note that they are not, by any means,
the only sanctions that are levied against Cuba. So no matter
what those specific elements are, there are other things that
will have to be taken into account.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I’m sorry. Did someone
else want to address that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: Sure. This is [Senior
Administration Official Four]. I can just add that – just
to confirm that when – if Cuba is removed from the State
Department state sponsor of terrorism list, as it impacts the
sanctions on Cuba, Cuba would be removed from our terrorism list
government sanctions regulations. But notwithstanding the removal
of Cuba from those set of regulations, most transactions
involving Cuba or Cuban nationals, including transactions with
the Government of Cuba, will continue to be prohibited by OFAC
regulations under the Cuban asset control regulations.
MODERATOR: All right. Okay, Operator. I think we’re ready
for the next (inaudible).
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Silvia Ayuso El Pais.
Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Two quick questions. Could
– is there any action Congress could do to stop the
– President Obama’s decision? And did President
Obama get any extra assurance when he met with President Castro
in Panama? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I can address the question
of Congress. The statutes that we’re talking about provide
that no rescission can be made if within 45 days after the
receipt of the report from the President the Congress enacts a
joint resolution on the issue prohibiting the rescission. The
President, of course, can veto any such joint resolution and
Congress then, of course, can further act to override the veto.
So it’s the normal sort of process that we see. So on the
specifics, yes, Congress has the right to act.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So on the second question,
let me take that. This review was undertaken by the Department of
State, so it would have been addressed in Department of State
channels with Cuban counterparts, in addition to any internal
review that was undertaken through the U.S. interagency. So that
was done separately from any interaction the President may have
had with President Castro.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I think we’re ready for
the next (inaudible) please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That’ll come from Jo Biddle with AFP.
Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Yes, a couple questions, please. How and when
was this decision communicated to the Cuban authorities? I
believe you must have obviously told them about it. Was it the
weekend in Panama? Who did it? And how does this now affect the
process of going forward with trying to reestablish diplomatic
ties? Have you decided on next round of talks and where that
might be? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think I’ll take this
one if I could. I don’t know where that echo is coming
The conveyance of this particular data on this moving forward has
been conveyed to the Cuban Government. I’ll leave it at
that. I don’t think that it really is incredibly important
exactly how, but it was not a surprise to them, I don’t
think, that it was moving ahead. But because this has not
– because it had not been done in terms of sent to the
Congress, I don’t think that it would have been
appropriate for the President to have conveyed it formally in
The other thing is that in terms of the diplomatic discussion, we
have always said that the two issues were separate, the state
sponsor of terror issue and the diplomatic relations. We continue
to have the conversations on diplomatic relations. And as the
President said, there are a number of issues we’re still
working out, and we expect those to continue to be resolved and
to move ahead. We don’t have a fixed date or a time for a
next conversation or a response or – on those issues. But
we hope that will be very soon.
MODERATOR: All right. Ready for the next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Serena Marshall with ABC
News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I just wanted to go
back to the transactions element. So once the 45 days is up and
they are officially removed, will, for example, the banking
situation at the interests section here in Washington, D.C. for
the Cubans be resolved, or are they still considered to have
those sanctions in place that restrict them from using credit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, if I could just start
the answer to that one, while it’s made it –
clearly this – the amount or level of sanctions on Cuba
have made it difficult for them to find a bank in the United
States, it is not the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism
alone that has made that difficult for them. Many foreign
governments have found it difficult to find banks in the United
States in past years, and we had begun working with Cuba on this
over a year ago, well before the President’s announcement
came out. And we believe that the Cubans have found a bank and
that they are very close to resolving that ahead of the
resolution of this issue. (EMPHASIS ADDED, WL)
So again, I really don’t know that the two things are
directly linked, but surely it is easier for a country with fewer
sanctions on it to find financial institutions willing to do
business with it. But as I think [Senior Administration Official
Four] just outlined, many financial transactions are still going
to be prohibited under other regulations that Treasury has and
other law. So I don’t – this obviously, if the 45
days passes and they are taken off the list – that is the
intention of the Executive Branch – we’ll remove
one set of sanctions and will certainly be of assistance to the
Cuban Government in financial dealings, but we are optimistic
that they will have the banking issue resolved independent of
MODERATOR: All right.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: This is [Senior
Administration Official Four]. I just want to express agreement.
The two issues – state sponsor of terrorism designation
removal and the OFAC financial sanctions – are two
separate issues. But OFAC has taken steps to ease the situation
and facilitate banking and banking for the Cuban Interests
Section here in the United States.
MODERATOR: All right. We’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Karen DeYoung with The
Washington Post. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to –
this goes back a bit to the previous question, and to ask you
whether the Cubans have indicated to you in any way that they
would be willing for their part to move forward on the embassy
issue before the 45 days have elapsed, that it is enough for the
President to have done this. And I realize that on your side that
requires some progress on resolving the issues of our diplomatic
activity and access to an embassy in Cuba, and I wondered if you
could tell us if there has been any progress on that or if you
feel that you’re close to making some progress in any way
that would actually allow embassies to go forward in the next 45
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think that the
conversations in Panama, Karen, were really pretty productive,
and I think that especially having presidents talk to each other
directly is always a very good thing. So I don’t have any
reason – I don’t have any different information
today necessarily than I had Saturday when we left Panama.
It’s only been a couple of days. But I’m pretty
optimistic that things will move ahead on the diplomatic front as
well. But I really think that’s as much up to the Cubans
as anybody. And we see great value, obviously, in having this
relationship normalized. We think that’s what the
President decided at the start of this process. But we need the
embassy to function the way embassies function around the world.
So we’re going to continue to pursue those requirements,
and I think that it was a good conversation as to why
that’s to the benefit of both of us.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Elise Labott with CNN.
Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Just one quick follow on the
– on what one of the Administration officials said on that
there’s no periodic review of taking countries off the
state sponsor of terrorism list. So if there is no periodic
review, how does a listing of a country not be political if
it’s not until the President asks for a review of that? I
mean, it’s possible that countries are not conducting
terrorist incidences for the – events for the following
six months, but unless an administration make a political
decision to ask for it, how do they get off? And how does that
fit into the charges that this list, in many ways, especially
with Cuba, has been political?
And then also, [Senior Administration Official Two], if you could
follow up, if you could put a little more meat on the bones of
– you said that you still have some differences with Cuba
that are hurdles to maintaining normal relations. If you could
– if you could flesh that out a little bit, that’d
be great. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: So let me be a little bit
clearer about that. The – what I said was and what I
should have specified is there – unlike with certain kinds
of sanctions, for example with respect to foreign terrorist
organization designations, we are required by law to
periodically, at a certain time interval, review that designation
and ensure that the individual or entity still meets the
That is not the case with respect to the designation of a state
sponsor of terrorism. That said, we’re completely
cognizant of the fact that the circumstances change over time,
and we do undertake reviews from time to time as we are called
upon to do it or as we feel there is a rationale for so doing.
In this instance, it’s not required that the President
initiate that review – there may be other reasons or other
specified instances or circumstances that call on us to do it
– but in this instance we were specifically asked by the
President to undertake it in light of, again, the evolving
situation with Cuba. And that’s why we undertook the
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Elise, I think that
we’ve been pretty clear from the beginning the kinds of
things that we need to have to run an embassy – well,
either to run an embassy as we run embassies in other countries
with normal relationships, even ones where we have to overcome
some history, or, frankly, to open an embassy and probably have
some more people in it, some more agencies potentially, that
hasn’t been adequately, I would say, stocked and staffed
in quite a few years. And that’s really what we’re
trying to get at here. We’re trying to get at the issue of
the mobility around the country to be able to see the conditions
and talk to lots of people. We’re trying to get at the
issue of obsolete equipment and facilities. We’re trying
to get at the issue of staffing levels. And we’ve made it
– a good bit of progress, but we have to have an embassy
that functions the way – it may not function the way our
embassy functions in London, but it’s got to be able to
function at least at a level the way some of our embassies do in
other countries around the world.
And so we’re still not quite there yet, and so
we’re going to keep working at those things and I –
I’m optimistic, especially, as I say, after the
conversations with the President. But I think it’s up to
our Cuban counterparts. These are ultimately decisions that have
to be made by mutual consent. That’s fundamentally what
these diplomatic relations are about. We each have to agree to
the way we’re going to operate in each other’s
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. We’re running a little
bit low on time, so we’ll try to get to as many more as we
can. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That’s from Felicia Schwartz with The
Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much for doing this. One, just to
be sure, does anything go into effect before the 45-day review
process is up? And then, what – without going too far into
the weeds, are there some immediate changes we can expect to see
then in terms of what kind of transactions that businesses can
conduct? And then also on the sort of diplomatic note, when might
we – could we expect to see a trip by Secretary Kerry,
like this year, in the next few months? And then what’s
next in terms of the State Department once the terror designation
gets lifted formally and the embassies get restored. Like what
– is the State Department going to try to work with the
Hill to get legislation on the books that will further the
process along? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: With respect to just the
very first part of your series of questions, no. Specific to the
state sponsor of terrorism designation, nothing will happen
before the end of the 45-day period. That period must elapse for
the Secretary of State to be able to lift Cuba off – or to
take Cuba off the list.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So I have to remember what
some of the other questions were. They were when the Secretary
might go to Cuba, I know. Secretary looks forward to going to
Cuba to open embassies, and I think he’s hoping to do that
as soon as we can get things ironed out. But he says, I think as
a good Secretary of State of would, that he wants to get this
right, not necessarily fast. So he’s willing to continue
to have the conversations that he needs to have and that we need
to have to make sure that we get it right.
I think we – the diplomatic part of this and setting up
the embassies is one of the places in which you see, I suppose,
the evidence of 50 years that we have to overcome, and maybe a
little bit more confidence-building is necessary before we can
each make sure that we have what we need to move forward, but
we’ll get there.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you. I think we have time for one
last question. It was a follow-up, if I’m not mistaken. Go
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Arshad Mohammed with
Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you please just tick off for us simply, one by one,
what are the implications of Cuba ultimately being dropped from
the State Sponsors of Terrorism List in terms of the specific
sanctions that it is currently subjected to but will no longer be
subjected to once it is off the list?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Okay. I mean, again, I can
go through what we already went through with respect to the kinds
of sanctions that are governed by the statutes on the state
sponsor of terrorism designation. That said, I cannot give you
the second part, which I think only [Senior Administration
Officials] can, which is to say that the broad array of
transaction that the Cubans or others may try to engage in are
subject to other sanctions. So we can only speak – I can
only speak to that first part. The first part of your question
is, and we have spoken about this before, the four main
categories of sanctions that result from the designation under
the state sponsor of terrorism authorities include restrictions
on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales,
certain controls over the exports of dual-use items, and
miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. So those are the
kinds of things that are governed by this one designation. That
said, as [Senior Administration Officials] have already talked
about, there is another set of sanctions that apply here. They
can perhaps give you a little bit more on that part of it.
MODERATOR: We have a [Senior Administration Official] on the
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: Yes. I mean, there –
just to agree, to the extent other statutes don’t –
and there are many Cuba-specific statutes – don’t
conflict, [Senior Administration Official Three] has accurately
defined the types of restrictions that are lifted when a State
Sponsor of Terrorism designation is lifted. But just to confirm,
economic sanctions under Cuba’s – OFAC’s
Cuban Assets Control Regulations will remain in effect and most
transactions with Cuba and with Cuban nationals and the
Government of Cuba will remain prohibited absent authorization
MODERATOR: All right. I’d like to thank our speakers and
also our participants, those who have joined us for this call.
Again, this call has been on background, attributable to senior
Administration officials. And we appreciate everyone’s
participation and wish you all the best. Thanks very much. Out