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Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Cuba

Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
August 12, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and thanks, everyone, for joining us. Today’s call – it will be on background with attribution to a senior State Department official. We’re going to discuss the Secretary’s historic trip to Havana this Friday where he’ll preside over the opening – ceremonial opening, rather, of the U.S. Embassy there.

For your information only and not for any kind of attribution, our speaker today is [Senior State Department Official]. Again, this call is going to be on background with attribution to a senior State Department official. So with that, I’ll hand it over to [Senior State Department Official], and then [Senior State Department Official] will be able to take some of your questions.

Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, [Moderator]. Thanks for being here, everybody. I really am not going to say much except that you all know that the culmination of lots of months of work will take place on Friday when the Secretary goes to Havana to ceremonially open our embassy in Havana. And he will have a full day of activities. He’s very much looking forward to this trip and to the – this formal or ceremonial opening. We obviously have had an embassy in Havana since July 20th, which was the date that diplomatic relations were restored and both countries’ embassies became – or interest sections became embassies. But he’s very much looking forward to this visit, which is the first by a Secretary of State in 60 years. And with that, let me just take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. We’ll go ahead and start with questions. Go ahead, operator.

OPERATOR: Our first question is from the line of Andrea Mitchell, NBC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Can you explain the decision to – for the Secretary in Havana to meet separately with dissidents and others from civic society rather than inviting them to the main ceremony? It does seem like a change in what has been for decades the U.S. policy.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. Thanks, Andrea, for the question. And I do want to clarify that, because it really is not at all a change, although it’s very much in keeping with the new policy and our continued commitment to civil society in Cuba. The Secretary plans, obviously, to meet with a broad range of civil society throughout the day. The opening ceremony, which is the flag-raising ceremony at the embassy, is principally a government-to-government event. It’ll include officials from the Cuban Government, a range of U.S. Government agencies, as well as members of Congress. There will be some U.S. and Cuban private citizens there, but it is primarily a government-to-government event, and it is extremely constrained in space. If you’ve ever been to our embassy, you know what the – I was somewhat amused to see it described as our front lawn, because it’s a very constrained space. But it is principally a government-to-government event, signifying this new relationship and the reopening of an embassy.

Later in the day, we are having a large event at the chief of mission’s residence, which is also a diplomatic installation, in which a broad range of groups will be invited, including the Cuban Government, Cuban Americans, Cuban artists and cultural leaders, the Diplomatic Corps, entrepreneurs, and Cuban political human rights and media activists. Let me emphasize that for the last – well, at least as long as I can remember, certainly working here at the State Department, we have invited broad spectrum of Cuban civil society to the chief of mission’s residence for diplomatic events, which are U.S. Government events. So they are just as official as events that are held at the embassy or the interests section in the previous days, and so it’s really not a change at all that we would include them in a larger event like that where we include the broad swath of Cuban civil society. The earlier event is, as I say, primarily government-to-government, and the Secretary does look forward to seeing many members of Cuban civil society, including dissidents, at that event.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. We’ve been told that this – what you described as a very large event, including entrepreneurs, members of civil society, and dissidents, is closed to the media traveling with Secretary Kerry. And my question is why that is. And why would you not want those people to have access to the media? It doesn’t sound from your description as if it’s some kind of private conversation involving policy.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, it really isn’t, Karen, and that’s a question you’d probably have to ask some of my public affairs colleagues. But I will tell you the reason that I understand, which is to be perfectly honest, it’s sheer space. We did want to have the broadest range of Cuban society and diplomats and private sector and many people there, and given the interest in the event, both on-island and off, and the fact that we really were splitting up people and trying to fit people in whether it was at the embassy flag raising – which, as I say, is a very constrained space – or at the chief of mission residence, there was simply physically no way we could envision having as broad a range of people at the reception and making it open press. And so that was really – my understanding was it was largely for space reasons. Whether or not we’re able to accommodate some form of pool or individual I just don’t know, but it’s entirely for space reasons. There’s nothing secret or high policy necessarily that will be going on in the event itself, although certainly the Secretary looks forward to having conversations with many people during that event.

MODERATOR: Yeah, on behalf of the press shop here, I can concur with that. That’s the consideration, but as Senior State Department Official said, we’ll look at it again.

Go ahead, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Lisa Schwartz, Wall Street Journal, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Two questions. One is: Can you give us any color about preparations in Washington and Havana for this historic event? And then the second is: What is the Secretary planning to raise in his meetings with Cuban officials?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I guess on the color side what I can tell you is that in the preparations for this – it’s funny because you look forward to these things for a very long time – that is to say, I know in the timeframe of 54 years of one policy and less than six months of another, it may not seem very long, but obviously we that have been working on it and this incredible team that I get to work with in our Cuban Affairs Office and elsewhere in the department and in the Department of Treasury and Commerce and elsewhere, all those folks have been working really, really hard implementing the President’s new policy since December 17th. But in some ways, a lot of that was building up towards the opening of our embassy, and obviously, the visit of the first cabinet member from the department going to Havana. And now we’re at the day and there’s just a million little things that you have to get done.

I think that on the ground in Havana they probably feel it even more than we do, but there’s just so many details. And I will tell you that from the time that we sent what is normal for the State Department, which is advance teams down to prepare for a secretarial visit, it is nothing like I think the Cuban Government is used to in dealing with foreign dignitaries. And as we all know, those who’ve traveled with the Secretary of State or with the President, even the lightest footprint of the United States is probably a bit larger than they’re used to dealing with. And so it’s been absolutely intense in getting ready for this.

But I think everyone will admit that despite the amount of work that everyone’s had, it has not been a kind of – there haven’t been nearly as many difficulties encountered or obstacles to overcome or sort of hard no’s to questions of things that people wanted to do or were hoping to do or the way we normally do things that some people might have feared. There’s been a spirit of cooperation in working towards making this a good event that I think has carried over from the conversations we’ve had for the last few months. And obviously, we hope we’re – sort of our spirit in getting the Cuban embassy open up here in a very, very busy and intense day back in July.

So everyone’s been working really hard. I think there are – there are people going to Cuba for this event. I will say this, and I’m not going to name names because I won’t even remember individual names, but I do know there are people going to Havana for this event who have not been to Cuba before, and that includes some Cuban Americans. And that has to be incredibly emotional. And as important this is as a policy measure, I guess I want to remind people, because I’ve said this before when we talk about this policy, in the end this is about people. It’s about families that have been divided. It’s about people in Cuba and helping them and supporting them, which is what this policy’s all about. And I think you will see a lot of that reflected in the Secretary in what he does and in his words on Friday.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, then.

OPERATOR: Silvia Ayuso with El Pais. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I was wondering if you could – you said that the U.S. delegation, the people who are accompanying Secretary Kerry are quite varied. I understand there are certain Cuban American entrepreneurs and also some historic figures, like the Marines and – that were – that lowered the flag last time in ’61. So I was wondering if you could just detail a bit more who’s accompanying the Secretary Kerry and why – how were they chosen? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. Although I won’t take out the time from your answer – I promise I will talk about that – I didn’t answer the second question that I was asked previously, which was on the bilateral agenda, I think, with Foreign Minister Rodriguez. And let me just say that I do expect the two foreign ministers to continue to discuss the dialogues that we’ve begun under the new policy of this Administration. And most important, I think, at this point is to talk through moving forward on some of those dialogues and prioritizing dialogue. And we’ve obviously said for quite a while that it will be very important that we move forward on some of the priorities that we have, including law enforcement, human rights; and continuing things that we’ve done very well on, I think, including maritime cooperation, counter-narcotics cooperation, environmental cooperation, et cetera.

So it will be a continuation of that, but also hopefully an acceleration, now that we have normal diplomatic relationship, of some of the areas we have begun as well as hoping to move forward on issues like claims.

On the issues of the Secretary’s delegation, let me say that I think, for example, one of the things that is most important to us is to make sure that our colleagues at the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department are recognized for their work in the change in policy, so there will be senior representatives from both those departments on the Secretary’s delegation. The regulations that were put in place after the President’s December 17th announcement were Treasury and Commerce regulations, and so it’s particularly important to us that those departments be represented by senior members. Obviously, we’ve long had colleagues from the Department of Homeland Security involved in our relationship with Cuba as part of our migration talk because they work on – for example, the Coast Guard has had a relationship with Cuba for a number of years now, a very productive operational relationship. So I think that it is those kinds of other agencies that will be part of this delegation.

I also think that you can logically – not as part of the U.S. delegation in terms of the government but as part of the events of the day in terms of the Cuban American community, there have been Cuban Americans who’ve been outspoken and very eloquent in their support for the President’s policy before and since December 17th – pro-engagement – who believe that this is a better way to try and engage with the Cuban people, support the Cuban people, and serve the United States national interest, and you will probably see some of those people in Cuba on Friday.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. I’d like to find out – will the Secretary be meeting with the president – with Raul Castro? And did the Cubans have any say in who the United States invited to the ceremony? What I’m asking there is was there explicitly a – them saying you can’t invite the dissidents to some events or – and if you did, would the invitation to Raul Castro not be met?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Lesley. On the question of President Castro, that is not currently envisioned on the Secretary’s schedule. He expects to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Rodriguez.

On the issue of – sorry, I’m like forgetting the second part of your question – oh, the say – the invitations. No, the Cubans have no say over the invitations to our event, so I really want to be clear on that. Just as we had no say in who they invited to their opening of their embassy, neither did they have any say in who was invited to our opening, and that’s as it should be. I think I will have gotten all of the questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thank you. Time for a few more questions.


MODERATOR: Questions?

OPERATOR: Indira Lakshmanan, please – Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Thanks for doing this. I want to ask you – part of the whole push that you did in these negotiations was to make sure that the U.S. Embassy was going to be open to all Cubans, that anybody could come. Of course, in this first event, the dissidents and the civil society people are not coming to the embassy event. I know you said the CMR is still a government installation, but in the future, will those dissidents and civil society people be able to come freely to the embassy, and will they have to or will you have to report their names?

And on the flip side of that, give us a little more detail if you could, please, on U.S. diplomats’ travel around Cuba. Will you have to tell the Cuban Government where you’re traveling to or who you’re going to be meeting with? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Indira. On the question of openness to the Cuban public and to dissidents, you’ve got me there. It’s not going to be as open on Friday morning, I’ll grant you that, because of the space and the need for – our needs on Friday morning from the hour that the Secretary is there. But when the Secretary has gone from that ceremony, we will revert to the policy that we have had before and will continue to have, which is that everyone is welcome. Certainly, the dissidents will remain welcome at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, as they have been, to utilize the internet terminals, to see people in the embassy, as we would like all Cubans to feel welcome. And access was indeed one of the important questions in these discussions, and we’ve been quite pleased with the way that has adjusted under this agreement.

And we in fact do not have to give names to the Cuban Government. As we do around the world, we take care of the screening of people who come into our embassies. There is security, of course, which is always provided by local guards – in this case, provided by the government – but this is a – now a question of our screening people who come in for appointments and so forth. And so that’s no longer a concern of ours and everyone will be welcome.

In terms of travel, we are very satisfied with the travel arrangement that we’ve come to, that it is in synch with the way we operate in restrictive environments around the world. We will no longer have to get permission for our travel. It will be a notification system, and that is much more acceptable to us. Obviously, we would prefer a system where nobody has to even notify, but this is acceptable because we will be able to travel to places we’ve not been able to go up till now, and that means the ability to talk to many more people and see the situation in lots of other cities. Certainly, I was reading some articles over the weekend about other cities in Cuba feeling very much left out of this whole excitement and this process, and that’s a shame. And we certainly don’t want these other cities to feel as ignored as they may right now, so we expect our embassy personnel to be traveling around the island in a way that is much, much more – much more – much less restrictive than it has been.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Pam Dockins, Voice of America, please go ahead.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], thank you for doing this. Actually, two quick questions. First of all, I know the schedule for Friday is tight, but is it possible after the event at the – with the chief of missions to have access to a couple of the dissidents who attended or meet with them at another venue?

And my second question is concerning the flag, and that is: Is the flag that the Marines will be raising on Friday the same one that was lowered 54 years ago?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. In terms of the dissidents, I certainly can’t make their press arrangements for them. That would be entirely up to them, as it would be any other members of the – any other people who come to the reception. And I just – and I certainly can’t make any commitments about space in the residence because it’s going to be a huge group of people and people are going to be moving in and out, so I wouldn’t want to make any commitments or have the ability to allow any media other than the Secretary to take place in the CMR.

But on the flag, let me just say that unfortunately it will not be the same flag. They will be raising, my guess is, a new flag at the embassy.

MODERATOR: All right. Time for I think just a couple more questions, so next question, please.

OPERATOR: Nicolas Revise with AFP, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Just a quick clarification: Is it the first visit of a U.S. secretary of state for 60 years or 70 years? Because I thought that the last one took place in 1945. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So, yes, good call. The last visit by a secretary of state was in 1945, but it was a very brief visit, I understand. The last, more substantial visit was in 1940, so 65 years ago. And so whether it’s 60 or closer to 70 – sorry – it’s not – I’m not sure, but the last actual – the last visit by a secretary of state was 1945, albeit brief.

MODERATOR: Okay, thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Mimi Whitefield with Miami Herald, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Can we talk numbers a bit? How many are you expecting at the embassy ceremony, and how many at the chief of mission’s residence? And also from the island we’re hearing that there are five or six dissidents who expect at some point in the reception they will have an opportunity to speak with Secretary Kerry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Mimi. On numbers, I really don’t want to give you numbers right now because they’re changing. Invitations have gone out, obviously, but people are still getting back to us. And so any number I gave you now will be wrong in an hour or six hours or whatever, and so all I can tell you is the number at the embassy is significantly lower than the number at the ambassador’s residence. The one at the chief of mission’s residence is going to be much larger, probably more than double what the size of the embassy flag-raising is. And that’s the best I can do. So – and some of those who will be at the embassy will, of course, be some of our embassy personnel. So that’s kind of the best I can do. And to the best of our ability, there won’t be much overlap between the two groups in order for us to try and accommodate everybody, right.

And in terms of the dissidents, I can’t confirm exactly who the Secretary may or may not speak with at the reception, but he is certainly hoping to speak with as many people as possible during a relatively compressed period of time, among them some of the dissidents. And I would expect that there are many people who will want to speak to him, and he’s going to try and speak to as many as he can.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I think we have time for just one more question.

OPERATOR: Elizabeth Valdes with Telemundo. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, we keep hearing about the dissidents. Do we know what dissidents he will be meeting with? And second, will the Secretary of State be meeting with Raul and Fidel?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So on the first question, I can’t tell you exactly who he will be meeting with, as I just said, but – I can’t even tell you exactly who has been invited. I really feel strongly that it’s not helpful to them or to the Secretary for that to be out in public before the event. We’re inviting people. We’re hoping they’ll be able to make it. I just think it’s more – it’s better for everyone if we get our invitations to people and they make their own decisions about whether they wish to come, and hopefully are able to come.

But second of all, let me also say – because I don’t think I did previously and I do want to make sure that I’m clear about this – nothing in the Secretary’s events on Friday will change our support for dissidents on the island, for political actors, for human rights activists, for independent media. Nothing has changed in that regard, and nothing will, and we will always stand with peaceful political activists who are looking for opening and space and human rights in Cuba. Just as we denounced the actions that took place on Sunday and the increase in short-term detentions in Cuba, we will continue to speak out against those things and to respect and support the work of peaceful activists regardless of how many or which of the dissidents the Secretary is able to speak with on Friday.

In terms of Raul or Fidel, the Secretary has no plan to meet with either of them when he’s there. As of now he certainly has no plans to speak with Fidel and has no plans to see President Castro at this time.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you all so much for joining us this afternoon, and obviously look forward to a big day on Friday in Havana. And thanks so much to our senior State Department official. Take care, everyone.


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