Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Senior State Department Official On Ongoing Discussions with the Cuban Government

Senior State Department Official On the Ongoing Discussions with Cuba to Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations And Reopen Embassies


Yesterday, a Senior State Department Official participated in a background briefing on the upcoming meeting with our Cuban counterparts to continue the discussions on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations being held at the Department of State on Thursday, May 21.

Below is the transcript:

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Via teleconference
May 19, 2015

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MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Operator, and thanks to everyone for calling in today. And we're grateful to have with us a senior State Department official who can talk about the talks with Cuba that are coming up later this week.

And so for everyone's information, this call will be on background – no names or titles, please. But for your information, we have with us today [Senior State Department Official]. And with that I would hand it over to our speaker to give us a few words at the start, and then we will go to your questions so we can get to as many of them as we can in the limited time we've got.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. Nice to speak with you all again. It is that time again – time for some conversations with our Cuban counterparts. We will be meeting on Thursday here in the Department. This is, as you know, the fourth round, if we're counting, of discussions on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Obviously, in between the third round, which was in Havana, and this fourth round, there have been a couple of, shall we say, more senior meetings to discuss the bilateral relationship in Panama, both Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart and President Obama meeting with President Castro. And now the junior G-men get back to work on the details of this relationship on Thursday.

So let me just say that I'm looking forward to getting down to that again. We've been ready for a while to discuss the next steps with our Cuban counterparts, and let me open it up to your questions.

MODERATOR: All right. So, Operator, I think we're ready to go to the first question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. First a quick reminder: Press *1 if you have a question. And please limit yourself to one question so we have more opportunity for everyone.

Our first question will come from Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Mine is a more general question, which is: Have you seen a change in the attitude of the Cubans since the meeting between the two presidents? And if so, what sort of change?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thanks, Margaret. I think what I would say is since the meeting between the two presidents in Panama, there has been – I guess I would call it a sense of commitment to move this forward that was kind of renewed by that high-level contact. Obviously, as you've all seen, there has been a lot going on vis-a-vis Cuba, an announcement that the Pope is going to be going to Cuba, visits by other world leaders. And so we were ready to get together right after that meeting with President Castro, and our counterparts weren't necessarily as quick to be prepared as we were.

But I think that that meeting was quite positive in terms of the desire of both presidents to move forward with the commitment they made on December 17th to re-establish diplomatic relations. And that was useful in kind of re-asserting the – or underscoring for the Cuban side as well the desire to get this done. So we have seen more attention to this, a little bit, obviously, more movement on responses to our proposals. So, yeah, I think it has – it was very helpful to have the two leaders meet and have as productive a conversation as they did in Panama.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. We're ready for the next question, Operator.

OPERATOR: That will come from Nora – I'm sorry – Nora Gamez with Miami Herald. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this. Last week, President Castro criticizes the U.S. Interests Section because they were providing some sort of programs for independent journalists. And I think now this is another issue they want to be discussed. Is this something new? Was this ever discussed in the previous meetings?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think the thing that I would say is that on many occasions, both before we've had conversations and these talks and at other times, President Castro has talked about issues that he would like to see changes in behavior by the U.S., whether it is Guantanamo or democracy programs or the embargo. Some of those things are things that we are talking about within our discussions in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, and quite a lot of them are not.

So we are talking about how our embassy will operate when we reopen embassies in each other's countries, and the things that Cuba has often said they would like to see or would not like to see are obviously things that may or may not appear in their government's position when they come to the table. But I don't think it's a secret to anyone that the Cuban Government does not like the democracy programs that we have had. We have said that we will continue to request funds for democracy programs, but we also believe that this direct engagement is a way of directly supporting the Cuban people more effectively than we have in the past.

That said, we have had programs that have trained journalists all over the world that have taught them about some basic techniques in journalism. We do that in many, many places all over the world. And so we commit to doing that in lots of different places. But some – I want to be clear that some of the things that have been raised by President Castro in the past are things that we've discussed and some of them aren't.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. We're ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: That will come from Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Would – thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. Just to follow up on that question, would the U.S. in any way consider changing how those programs with journalists are carried out or practiced – if not stopping, then changing the programs? Is that even something under consideration? And how close are you – I believe that the U.S. has to give about 15 days or the President has to give 15 days' notice on reopening the embassy. Where are we on the practicalities of that timeline?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, let me take the second question first, just because it's more straightforward. I think on the logistics here, there are quite a few things we have to go through on the checklist of reopening embassies, and one of them is a notification that we have to do to Congress whenever we change the status of a diplomatic mission. So that's what this would involve, and we will obviously do that. But also, there are things like the mundane, like each of us has to notify the Swiss that we're abrogating the protecting power agreement, since we're going to have direct diplomatic relations. And there's other things like that that you want to make sure you go through before you re-establish diplomatic relations.

So I think really we do one thing at a time in the sense that we will sit down and have our conversations and try and get to an agreement on the way these operations will run, and then we'll take care of all of the diplomatic niceties. The one thing that I would say is we are cognizant of a 15-day notification period with Congress, and so when we send forward the notification to Congress – and I don't know exactly when that will be – it won't necessarily signal we are opening embassies in exactly 15 days. It will signal to Congress we are – we know we're going to be opening embassy – a change in status where we'll be going to an embassy. We need to be sure we've cleared this with you, so we want to have that 15-day period have passed. It won't signify a specific date. It will be something we want to have done before we move forward on an opening, whenever that date will be.

On the question of democracy programs, I think the thing that you have to remember is the democracy programs, in their history since I think about 1996 when they began, have changed over time. And they will continue to change over time to reflect a reality, whether that reality is on the ground in Cuba or in the United States. When the democracy programs began, for example, Cubans could not travel nearly as freely as they now can. Ever since the change in policy by the Cuban Government in 2013, many more people can travel, which means people can do things and participate in things outside of Cuba as opposed to inside of it.

I think we always have to be cognizant of making sure that when we are supporting the Cuban people, we're doing it in a way that is the most effective. We've moved forward with requests for funding in the past couple of years, and we've done that most recently in FY '16. But I think we have to be careful not to ever have thought that those programs were static and separate from changes in the environment in which they're working.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will be Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Thanks for doing the call. In terms of the issues that are not being discussed right now in the normalization process, is the status of Guantanamo as a military installation not a part of these talks? And if you could reiterate why, why not. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can certainly reiterate that the status of Guantanamo is not a part of these talks. As I had said months ago, it is not on the table. The question of why or why not I think is a question – the President has made clear he's not interested in having that conversation. We have begun where it is logical to begin, which is the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which is what the President and President Castro agreed to. We know that in the process of normalization, for example, there will be other things that we will tackle, such as claims and other longer-term conversations. But we've made clear that the issue of Guantanamo is not on the table at this point, and I don't – I can't say what the future may bring on this, but it's not on the table right now, and I don't know that there's a reason to justify having it or not having it. And you certainly heard the Cubans' view on this, but it's not under discussion at this point.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We're ready for the next question, operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, [Senior State Department Official]. I wanted to actually add to Margaret's earlier question about logistics. So even prior to that 15-day notification period, obviously the President notified Congress in the middle of April the 14th that he'd take Cuba off the list of state sponsors. So I think with 45 days that brings us to the end of May, May 29th, if I'm correct. And I want to know: Does that mean at that time – have the Cubans indicated to you that upon reaching May 29th they are then – have all the boxes been checked, that they're ready to soon re-establish the embassies and name the ambassadors? And have you had any opposition from Congress within this period, and do you expect to have any within the following 15-day period?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me just say that to some extent I'm reading the same articles you are, Indira, and the Cubans have made pretty clear in their public statements that they view the lapsing of the 45-day period on the Hill for the state sponsor of terrorism rescission decision, which happens on May 29th, and the finding of a bank, which they now have done, as things that are now resolved and therefore they can move forward with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. I'm delighted to hear that they're ready to move forward on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, but the fact is we never linked those two things and therefore we have been ready to move forward on the diplomatic side for quite a while now. If they are now ready to do the same, we're delighted to hear that.

Just a comment that it's true that the 45-day period lapses on the 29th. I think there is a Federal Register notice that then has to be published, which is like a day or something, so I just want to be careful that it actually goes into effect like a day or two after that, which the Cubans are aware of. But obviously, as of the 45-day period Congress no longer has the ability to act, at least during that window.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no efforts underway right now on Capitol Hill to block the removal of Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. I think those were the questions. I can't remember if there was anything else.

MODERATOR: I think that's right. Operator, next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, thanks so much. And I apologize; I got knocked off at the beginning so you may have already explained this. But absent any action from Congress then, if you could be a little more granular, would there be anything to prevent the Cubans from opening their embassy in Washington without any further announcement once the Federal Registry announcement is cleared?

And are there any other impediments that you know of to the opening in Havana, aside from the access issues you've already detailed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. No, it's a good question. To be clear, the – from our perspective, there were never any impediments except the negotiation of how our embassies were going to operate, which is obviously what we're sitting down to talk about again tomorrow. The – for the Cubans, they seem to link the two, and you'd have to ask them whether they see any other impediments, although they seem to be saying publicly that there are no others as of when that 45-day period lapses. But obviously, neither of us can open embassies until we come to that agreement jointly. Diplomatic relations are always reciprocal and by mutual consent under the Vienna Conventions, which are the basis for this discussion on diplomatic re-establishment. And therefore, regardless of what other political obstacles either of our governments may have felt we had, or legal obstacles, from our perspective, all we have to do is sit down and agree, and then our presidents can move forward with the conduct of diplomatic relations, as presidents have the executive power to do.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Jo Biddle with AFP. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hello, thanks very much indeed. It sounds like from what you're saying, [Senior State Department Official], that the United States is ready to really go ahead and that the Cubans aren't exactly coming up with what it is that you want in terms of operating your embassy freely in Havana. I wondered – you mentioned that you've got this checklist of things to go over on the logistics. Do you anticipate these will be cleared up within this meeting on Thursday this week, and therefore you might be actually in a position to issue that notice to Congress on your intention to go forward with diplomatic relations?

And you mentioned – just one logistic question. You mentioned that the Cubans have found a bank. Could you tell us which one it is? Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can't tell you which bank it is. That's an agreement between the Cubans and the bank, and probably that's for them to do or the bank. And I'm pretty sure they're going to be making a public announcement of that shortly. So that's really not my place to announce, but I know it was one of their requirements and that they've fulfilled it. So it's a good thing.

On the question of the checklist and so forth, I've entered every one of these rounds being an optimist, so I'm trying not to sound too Pollyannaish as I go into the fourth one. But I do think we're closer than we have been in the past, and I think my counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done. But equally, we have certain requirements that we need met, so we just have to see whether we can get there in this round of talks. I certainly hope so.

I do want to be clear, Jo, the notification to Congress on the change in status we could send to Congress at any time, and we could have sent it two weeks ago. In other words, it doesn't have to wait until we come to an agreement with the Cubans. It is still our intention to raise the interests section in Cuba to an embassy at some point when we come to agreement with the Cubans. So that being our intention, we can notify Congress of that at any time and let the 15-day period run, and then we would be – we would have complied with the requirement to notify Congress. So I don't – we don't have to wait until we've finished these talks to do that. And I don't know exactly when we'll send it forward, but it's not a prerequisite that we have agreement before we send that forward.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Yes. I realize you better go through this checklist, but can you really have an agreement to establish that embassy without – with these – this agreement over the diplomacy program security issues still hanging over your head? I mean, I know you say you want time to delink them, but do you really think that the Cubans will go forward with this with those things still up in the air?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I'm not sure what security issues you mean.

QUESTION: So have you guys agreed, then, on the security perimeter? You had the Cuban police in the vicinity of the embassy and you wanted that changed, right? Because you had actually for --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. Well, I mean, what I'm saying is that if we go forward, it will be because we've been satisfied on the issues that were our requirements, right. And I'm pretty optimistic we can come to an agreement that satisfies our requirements. Whether or not they're going to be able to agree to those things is really a question for them, but we've clearly gotten closer and worked our way to a fewer number of items on the checklist, so, I mean, that's the reason for my optimism.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. We've got just a little bit of time left, so we'll try to take a few quick questions. The next one, please.

OPERATOR: That will come from Randy Archibold with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I just had a question to clarify the 15-day notice to Congress. Within that period, is there any mechanism in the law for Congress to challenge that decision?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, it's – this is notification of a status change in our mission. In this case, this is a status change from an interests section to an embassy. That is not a change that Congress can block, because it is up to the Executive Branch to conduct foreign relations. That's a constitutional power of the President, from our interpretation and reading and precedent. Obviously, as you know, previous presidents have restarted or begun relations with countries, whether it was Kosovo or South Sudan or others in the past. It is similar to that, except in this case, we have an interests section in the country, and we changing its status to that of an embassy.

In this case, there is no budgetary implication. There is no money being spent requested from Congress to make that change. And therefore, no, it is a notification only.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Next question?

OPERATOR: That will come from Brad Klapper with AP. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you provide any more information on the size and scope of this journalist training program you do in Havana? I don't imagine it's that big given the total overall assistance levels, but if you could specify in any way? And also, I'd love to be illuminated on what the U.S. Government considers basic techniques in journalism, if you could expound on that in any way. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the good news is that I couldn't possibly expand on what the U.S. Government thinks of as basic techniques in journalism, because the U.S. Government would never teach journalism. We're government bureaucrats. People who would teach journalism would be journalism professors at journalism schools or other journalists. So I have no idea what their curriculum is, but it is – to the extent that we have courses on journalism and what journalists do around the world, we bring in, as we do everywhere else when we teach anything, right, we bring in experts in that field and we have them teach. Happily, the U.S. Government doesn't have Foreign Service officers or anybody else teaching how other professions do their jobs. We have a hard enough time doing our own jobs.

Second of all, I can't give you a good sense of the actual size. Number one, I think, to be perfectly honest, I don't know the specifics of how many people may have been enrolled over various times. But the second thing is that those programs are – some are people who go maybe to seminars outside the country, some may have attended things that were done in terms of seminars in our interests section. And I just feel like for the protection of folks who were involved, it's better that we don't give out too much information. This is the way we operate in restrictive environments where people don't have the freedom to take all of those things on an online course or internet access the way they might anywhere else.

MODERATOR: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is actually, I guess, sort of a follow-up to Brad's question and several others. The – Gustavo Machin in his press conference in Havana yesterday, I think, spoke indirectly to the journalist program and said that Cuba didn't find anything within the Vienna Convention that covered this kind of access to a diplomatic installation in any capital, and that therefore, they didn't recognize the validity of it under normal diplomatic relationships. Is that something that you expect to be a problem in terms of – is it something you're going to insist on on your checklist on providing this kind of access and allowing people to come in and take online courses on computers and things like that?

And also, just again in terms of your checklist, you've mentioned in the past the ability of diplomats to travel around the island and also the access of diplomatic material coming into the embassy. Have you gotten any indication since your last meeting that the Cubans are moving toward being able to resolve those issues to your satisfaction?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Karen. I think on the first question, all I would say as we go into conversations is that having determined that the Vienna Conventions – the two Vienna Conventions on consular interactions are the basis for this agreement. We have always discussed what we discussed within the context of our interpretations of those conventions. And I think as we come to closure on this, we will have an even fuller conversation on what may be at times some differing interpretations of the Vienna Convention and how we can come to an agreement on the way our diplomats should operate and the way their diplomats will obviously be permitted to operate in the United States, as everything in these agreements is reciprocal.

The second thing I would say is on the diplomatic checklist I wouldn't be even remotely optimistic if I did not feel that we were making progress. And by making progress, I mean obviously the checklist is getting done; there are check marks being made in the box. And that's how you have to be moving if you're going to get to an agreement. So there has been movement, and I think that we need continued movement for us to get to a place of agreement, but I expect that we will be able to do that.

MODERATOR: All right. Time is running short, so we're going to do one or two quick ones. Please go ahead, operator.

OPERATOR: All right. We have Lucia Leal with EFE News. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for doing this. I wanted to ask you on Raul Castro's remarks last week. He also said that for him, the naming of ambassadors will be like an approachment, but for a full normalization of relations that Guantanamo has to be given up and the embargo has to be lifted. So it seems like their interpretation is pretty different. Do you think that there's a gap in the way they are interpreting things and the way you are interpreting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, there probably is a difference in interpretation, but there's not as big a gap as some may think in that, obviously, the – President Castro is correct in saying that the restoration of diplomatic relations is the first step; naming of ambassadors would come after that. I would say the President has already called for the lifting of the embargo, and it is certainly true that fully normal relations do not include an economic embargo, right. They do not include economic sanctions. That is not a fully normal political and economic relationship. So in that respect, to some extent he's right, but that is part of a longer-term normalization.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much. I know we've got to end now. Our speaker has additional engagements and work to turn to, so thank you very much to our senior State Department official, and thanks to participants in the call. This has been on background, attributable to a senior State Department official on Cuba. Thanks very much for your dialing in, and we'll be in touch again next time.

[This is a mobile copy of On the Ongoing Discussions with Cuba to Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations And Reopen Embassies]

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