Thursday, July 2, 2015

Briefing on renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
July 1, 2015

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, Paul , and thanks to everyone for joining us on relatively short notice. Obviously an historic day; we’re discussing the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. You obviously all saw the President and saw Secretary Kerry’s announcement, and this call is just a chance to let you ask some questions and discuss a little bit about what happens next.

Just to discuss attribution and ground rules, this call is on background with attribution to a High Level State Department Official or Senior State Department Official. For your information and no other use, that official is [Senior State Department Official]. So we have limited time today, about 30 minutes, so before I turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] I just will obviously try to get to as many questions as we can, but I would ask that you try to refrain from any follow-ups so we can get to as many of you as possible. And with that, I will hand it over to Senior State Department Official. Go ahead, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, [Moderator], and thank you all for joining me today. This is a very important day for all of us. As President Obama and Secretary Kerry just announced, we notified Congress that we have reached an agreement with the Government of Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies. As you know, the governments of the United States and Cuba have held discussions on reopening diplomatic relations since December 17th when President Obama changed the direction of U.S. policy towards Cuba. President Obama and Castro agreed that the historic occasion to restore a relationship severed some 54 years ago and to work towards re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Since then our governments have met regularly and have been in constant communication to define the conditions under which the embassies would operate. This was not an easy task given the long history of mistrust between our governments, but we persisted inspired by the conviction that engagement and not isolation was the key to moving forward.

We’re confident that our embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments. We will be able to meet and exchange opinions with a variety of voices and views both within the government and outside. We’ll be able to engage a broad range of Cuban civil society and citizens. Every U.S. embassy faces a different set of constraints, but we believe we’ve made sufficient progress to begin embassy operations. Deputy Secretary Blinken met with Cuban Interests Section Chief Cabanas this morning to receive the letters from President Castro and an administrative letter from my counterpart in the Cuban Government.

I’m not going to go into detail on the major issues of these negotiations, but we are satisfied with the conditions agreed to, including access to diplomatic facilities, travel of diplomats, and the level of staffing. I believe these conditions are acceptable for carrying out the core diplomatic functions necessary for implementing the President’s new policy direction on Cuba.

The response from our partners throughout the region and elsewhere around the globe has been overwhelmingly positive. The policy shift removed an obstacle from our discussions with our hemispheric partners that had distracted from broader priorities in the region. You heard the president mention – President Rousseff of Brazil having spoken about this just yesterday. Now we can refocus on President Obama’s commitment to new and equal partnerships across the Americas. Together we’re working to realize a vision for the Americas where countries share responsibilities, cooperate as equals, and advance common interests and values.

We’re very grateful to the Swiss for having been our protecting power for more than 50 years, and that will continue until the date on which diplomatic relations are established. I’m also very grateful to my Cuban counterparts and the Cuban negotiating team – specifically Director General Josefina Vidal and Jose Ramon Cabanas, chief of mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington – for their dedication and commitment to these talks. This is a first step in a long journey of reconciliation between our two people. We have accomplished much, but we have much more to do in the months ahead.

Let me also say a word of gratitude to [identifying information withheld] the entire team at the State Department which worked so hard over these months to get to this point. And also my deepest appreciation for my colleagues Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga at the White House, and of course, Secretary Kerry’s leadership throughout this process. With that, I’d be happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much. We’re ready to hand it over to you, Paul, to coordinate the questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, it’s * then 1 for questions, and we do have a number in queue. First from Bloomberg News, Indira Lakshmanan, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. I want to ask whether when Secretary Kerry referred to going to Cuba later this summer to raise the stars and stripes, is it necessary that he be there on the day that the embassy reopen, or can it reopen even before he gets there? That’s one. And secondly, could you please tell us a bit about – you mentioned how this is going to be similar to how U.S. embassies operate in other restrictive environments. Does this mean you’re going – that your diplomats are going to have to file plans saying where they plan to go or who they plan to meet with, or do they – just going to have to report that afterwards? What sort of restrictions are there going to be on them? And likewise, is it going to be completely free access for Cuban citizens to come to the U.S. embassy now? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, Indira. First of all, let me just say that as of the day that diplomatic relations are restored, we have full diplomatic relations and we have embassies in both countries. When the Secretary makes his trip is not directly connected to when the relationship is restored. Obviously, there’ll be a ceremony when the Secretary is there, but that is not a legal opening of the relationship. That happens on the date that the presidents have agreed to in the letters that were exchanged today. So that is as much ceremonial as it is – it’s not legal, so that happens before – the legal opening of relations will actually happen before his trip, most likely.

On the issue of travel for our diplomats, what I can tell you is that the travel by our diplomats will be much, much more free and flexible than it is now. It will be a form of ability to travel and talk to people that we’ve not had in the past, and it is similar to the kinds of arrangements we have in other countries that have restricted environments – better than in some places, not as good as in others – but considerably better than we have now in terms of our ability to get out and about and talk to people. So I want to leave it at that for now, but what we felt very strongly about is that we needed to have the ability to talk to as many Cubans as possible. What I’ve said repeatedly throughout these talks is that I’ve tried to reassure my Cuban counterpart that, frankly, we want to talk to as many of the 11 million Cubans on the island as we can, and that’s going to be our goal. And we feel that the arrangement that we’ve reached will enable us to do – to try and do that, obviously recognizing that we only have so many people and so much time.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: From ABC News, we’ll go to the line of Jim Avila. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, thank you [Senior State Department Official] for holding this; appreciate it. I wanted to ask first of all about what this means to Cuban people and to American people – the citizens – as far as having an actual embassy versus having an interests section. Are there tangible differences for the people or is this just a diplomatic thing? I’ll limit it to that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, it’s a great question. I think there are some differences, although I would be quick to say that even with an interests section, both ours and the Cubans here, we each serve our country people very extensively now. We offer American citizen services, we help them with perhaps lost passports or things of that sort. We issue visas to Cuban citizens to come here even now.

But we do think, especially with the President’s change in policy allowing more Americans to make the purposeful trip to Cuba that they are increasingly doing, that we will much better be able to serve that increased number of Americans in an embassy because we will have the ability, for example, to travel, to be in other parts of the island, to know what’s going on in places. One of the services we provide is consular information sheets or public information so that we know – we can give information to the American public when they’re traveling. We can’t do that nearly as well if we can’t get out and about. And for Cuban citizens, we’ve said for a long time that one of the things that was important to us was that in any agreement we reached to have an embassy, our embassy be a welcoming place for both Americans and Cubans. And we believe that the access that we have negotiated with our Cuban counterparts will make that the case, and that will be a difference from the past.

So those kinds of things I think are tangible differences in the tone and the practice of the relationship in the future.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. From CBS News, we’ll go to the line of Margaret Brennan. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi from Vienna. Thanks for doing this. Can you clarify – there were some reports that the Cuban Government has called for the U.S. to end all broadcast – radio, television, any kind of existing programs that do that kind of communication into Cuba. What has been agreed on those terms, if anything? And can you clarify that diplomatic relations do not begin, is my understanding, until after the 15-day period. That clock starts today with this exchange of letters. Is that a correct understanding?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Margaret, those are great questions. First on the Cuban request or public demand for end to broadcast and other things, I would just say that that is a demand that the Cubans have often made whether we’re talking about Radio and TV Marti or other kinds of programs. We’ve heard them make that request or demand many times. It was not the subject of this particular negotiation, and so it was not dealt with in this forum, and so there were no agreements along those lines made in this conversation. This was on how our embassies would operate in each other’s countries.

On the question of the notification to Congress and the actual date when diplomatic relations will resume, you are precisely right. Notification to Congress went today and that does begin the 15-day clock. This is a notification because of a change in status of a diplomatic mission, not because expenditure of funds, and thus we must leave that on the Hill for 15 days before we act on it. So the diplomatic relations will not start until after that 15 days has lapsed.

MODERATOR: Thanks so much. And next question, please.

OPERATOR: From NPR we’ll go to the line of Michele Kelemen. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Just one quick follow-up on Indira’s question at the beginning and then another question. Are you – are they asking for you to notify about travel, or do you need actually permission for diplomats to leave Havana and travel?

And then more broadly, I know you said that the issue of Radio Marti wasn’t part of this, but what about the internet access that’s provided at the embassy right now and other democracy programs? Was that part of the negotiations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So on the question of travel, I did use that word purposely. We will be notifying. Currently our arrangement is seeking permission or approval. In the future it will be notification. So that was a conscious use of words which is a distinction in practice in the future. And we think that’s quite important.

On the issue of things like internet access and programs, we have internet terminals, computer terminals for the public in dozens and dozens of locations around the world. I think it’s well over a hundred. And so I – we made that clear to the Cuban Government. We obviously talked about the behavior of diplomats as understood by the Vienna Convention which formed the basis of these discussions. But in the end, the exact types of programs or facilities that each of our embassies have were not actually the subject of any constraints or restrictions or specificity in our agreement. But obviously, the Cubans have made known to us over many years their displeasure with some of the things that we have done in the past.

I would say that in terms of internet access and information in Cuba, we’ve obviously – part of this policy is all about opening up information and telecommunications in Cuba. That’s one of the reasons the President made the decision he made vis-a-vis U.S. companies in the telecommunications area. And Cuba itself has made a commitment to move forward on internet access for its own citizens in the future, and we look forward to that in a way that the kinds of facilities that various embassies or other entities might have won’t be as necessary. You’ve seen some movement on internet access already in Cuba.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. We have time for just a few more questions. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: All right. From Reuters, we’ll go to the line of Lesley Wroughton. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you for this. Could you just point out or maybe try to sketch out what – how things will move going forward as far as normalizing relations? When do those meetings start, and kind of how do you get into them? Can you just expand on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I guess what I would say is they’ve started already, in the sense that there have been a whole lot of meetings going on while we had this conversation about the reopening of the diplomatic relationship. For example, you’ve had a series of conversations about telecommunications; you’ve had a number of conversations that have expanded the discussion on cooperation, perhaps, or coordination on health issues; you’ve had conversations on – begun on human rights, which we know are part of this new relationship; you’ve had conversations about the regulations that the President implemented under this new policy that we’re actually hoping to have more conversations with the Cuban Government about more specificity of what the regulations mean with various of their ministries.

We made clear publicly that going forward, we both agreed to have conversations about fugitives and law enforcement. That’s a very important part of the future relationship. We also have agreed to have conversations and a discussion about claims and – on each side, whether it’s expropriation or property claims or the Cuban Government’s claims against the United States for damages under the embargo. So those are the kinds of, I would say – what I would call kind of specialized conversations on various themes that have to now move forward and have really already begun to continue the process of normalization. Each of those is kind of getting you one step closer to a more normal relationship.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: From The New York Times, we’ll go to the line of Julie Davis. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, thanks. Two questions on the embassy and sort of technical aspects of the embassy. So Republicans who oppose the reopening have said that they will try to block funding for the embassy, for making whatever improvements need to be made or building needs to be done, and also block the confirmation of an ambassador. So I wonder if you could speak to – will the embassy actually be able to be fully up and running if you can’t get money and you can’t potentially get a permanent ambassador there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me start off by saying that we have a very robust interests section there right now, which I believe is actually the largest diplomatic presence in Havana. So this is not just a couple of people in Havana. It’s a very large diplomatic presence, so we will continue to have a large diplomatic presence in Havana, whether it’s – as an embassy when that restarts.

Nonetheless, I would say, respecting, obviously, Congress’s prerogatives on budgetary issues, it would be a shame if Congress impeded implementation of some of the very things that we think they – we all agree we want to do, such as better outreach to the Cuban people all over the island or additional – for example, the possibility of additional agencies being present in Cuba to help facilitate dialogue on fugitives and law enforcement. These are the kinds of things that we can do as we move forward in this relationship with a more robust embassy. And I would assume that most on the Hill agree those are a good thing to do.

In terms of having an ambassador there, obviously, the naming of an ambassador is up to the President, and he’s talking with the Secretary about this. We look forward to having an ambassador in Cuba to lead our embassy, as we do want to have ambassadors in all countries with whom we have relations. In the meantime, we have one of the most outstanding diplomats I can imagine at the head of our mission. Jeff DeLaurentis is on his third tour in Havana, he knows a great deal about Cuba, has done an extraordinary job leading our mission so far. He will become the charge d’affaires when we have diplomatic relations, and he’ll lead our mission until we have an ambassador.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Last two questions. Next, please.

OPERATOR: From CNN, we’ll go to the line of Juan Lopez. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I missed the first part of the call, [Senior State Department Official], so forgive me if this was part of the rules. [Identifying information withheld]. And if relations are established on the 20th, that means that whatever happens – the date I’ve heard, and I don’t know if you can confirm it or not, is that the Secretary would be in Havana on the 22nd. But that would be just, as you said, a ceremony, so it wouldn’t be that – it would be more the photo op than really the significant event, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Identifying information withheld].

Second of all, on the issue of the opening, we don’t have a date for the Secretary’s travel to Havana yet. But I have to say that given the fact that there has not been a Secretary of State in Havana since 1945, I think that whenever the Secretary goes, regardless of whether or not the formal diplomatic relationship has begun already, it’s going to be a very big deal and people are going to be very excited about it. And I do think that that will be a very important milestone in giving life and momentum and lift to what we’re trying to do, especially for the Cuban people, who I think need to continue to see that concrete evidence that this relationship is moving forward.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Up to our last question. I did want to just remind, Juan – I know you joined late – this is an on-background call from a senior State Department official, just in light of your question naming that person specifically. I just wanted to make you – make sure you were aware of that.

With that, we’ll hand it over to our last questioner.

OPERATOR: From the Miami Herald, we’ll go to Mimi Whitefield. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I just wanted to make the timetable – or would like you to make the timetable very clear. So you’ve sent the notification to Congress – 15 days. At that point, are diplomatic relations then established? And also, there is no specific date for the ceremony that Secretary Kerry will attend, and will the Cubans have their ceremony for opening their embassy on the same day, or do you expect they will be on different days?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Mimi. So let me try and be clearer, because I think I have not so far. So the letters that the presidents have exchanged restart diplomatic relations on July 20th. That is when diplomatic relations resume between Cuba and the United States. That is, of course, beyond the 15 days that we need for the Congressional notification to lapse, right, because today is July 1st. It’s gone to the Hill. That is beyond that date. So July 20th is when diplomatic relations are re-established. As of that date or on that date, either side could hold their events ceremonially opening their embassies. I don’t – I can’t speak for the Cuban Government as to when they’re going to do that ceremony here in D.C. What I can tell you is that I don’t yet have a date for when the Secretary is going to go to Havana.

What I can also say is that I think – to be perfectly honest, I don’t think any of us would particularly like to do this on the same day. I think that there are a lot of people involved in this who would like to see these things done at least far enough apart so that journalists and others could enjoy these two events without having to look at a split screen. But other than that, I don’t have dates for the U.S. side. And I won’t speak for the Cubans. They would announce their own side.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this and as well to everyone who joined us for this call. That’ll conclude this on-background briefing. Again, thanks to everyone for joining, and have a great day. Take care.

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