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Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials -- Havana, Cuba, 3/21/2016

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
March 22, 2016


Press Filing Center
Havana, Cuba

6:10 P.M. CST

MR. EARNEST: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to Havana. It's nice to see you all. We're joined today by some American business leaders who've traveled here to Cuba, both to take part in the Entrepreneurship Summit that you just saw the President address, but also to speak to all of you about the significance of the President's policy changes for the kind of business that they're involved in every day.

So standing immediately to my right is Brian Chesky, who's the president and founder of Airbnb. To his right is Carlos Gutierrez -- many of you may have covered him as the Commerce Secretary under President George W. Bush. And to his right is Dan Shulman, who is the CEO of PayPal.

I'm going to invite each of them to offer brief remarks. And then what we'll do is, if you have questions that you'd like to direct to one of them, I'll call on you -- we'll give them an opportunity to take your questions, and then we'll let them go. And then Ben and I will stick around for a little while and take questions that you may have on other topics.

So with that, Brian, do you want to kick us off?

MR. CHESKY: Sure. Hello, I'm Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb. We're a platform obviously. We have 2 million homes around the world. About one year ago we launched here in Cuba -- April 2, 2015. Since then, we now have 4,000 homes in Cuba, and we estimate somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Americans who travel to Cuba are now staying with a host on Airbnb. So it's been, we think, a very, very big success for us. And now, with the permission of the Treasury Department, we're going to allow guests from all over the world to be able to book on Airbnb.

And I think this trip, for me, was a great thing to watch President Obama speak of international diplomacy. And I think what we represent is diplomacy from a person-to-person level. One of our hosts said that they have a lot of misconceptions about Americans, but when they live with you for a year you start to think very, very differently about Americans. And so I think what we're a part of here is something that's been going on for a generation here in Cuba, but we're very, very excited to be a part of this.

Cuba is our fastest growing -- we're in 191 countries. Cuba is the fastest-growing country on Airbnb ever in the history of our platform, and I think, hopefully, this is just the very beginning of our development and also the beginning of many more friendships between our platform from Cubans with Americans and people all over the world.

MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Brian.

Dan, you want to go next?

MR. SHULMAN: Sure. Thanks, Josh. Good afternoon, everybody. It's an honor to be here this evening with all of you on this historic day. And we are looking forward to working with the administration and the Cuban government to advance the commercial ties and the diplomatic ties between our countries.

We have a mission at PayPal -- it's very simple. It's to democratize financial services. And what we mean by that is that managing and moving money should be a right for all citizens, not just a privilege for the affluent. And there's a saying in the United States that it's expensive to be poor. And that's true in financial services. Many of the events that you and I take for granted, like cashing a check, or paying a bill, getting a loan, or sending money to a loved one overseas is very time-consuming. You could wait in line for half an hour, an hour, two hours, just to make that transaction. And it can also be very expensive. The typical global remittance costs anywhere between 10 and 15 percent. For Cuban Americans to send a remittance to Cuba could be anywhere between 15, 20, even 25 percent.

And that's ridiculous with technology. Technology should be able to solve that. We should make that right something that all of us can enjoy.

About $2 billion is sent from the United States to Cuba in remittances every year. That's about 3 percent of the Cuban GDP. We believe that we can introduce our global remittance service -- Xoom -- to Cuba by yearend, making it, hopefully, easier for Cuban-Americans and other American citizens to send money to their loved ones here in Cuba, to send money to entrepreneurs who are trying to start businesses here, to fuel their dreams and their ambitions.

And of course, there are so many other services that PayPal can offer. Obviously when we talked to entrepreneurs today, they're all eager to access the Internet, access to other markets in the world. And 25 percent of PayPal's revenues are cross-border trade. And so we look forward to working with Cuban business leaders, Cuban entrepreneurs, to bring connectivity to users across the world, to expand their opportunities, and, again, to further the commercial ties between our two countries.

Thank you.

MR. EARNEST: Thank you.


SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Thank you. Good afternoon. And I want to thank the administration for having me on this -- in this panel here. Just as background for those who may not know, I was born in Cuba and I left at six years of age, 1960. I have been a lifelong student and observer of Cuba. And I should say also, I've been a lifelong Republican. But I also want to say that I am convinced that this is the right policy at the right time.

Cuba is changing and we see that we have more mutual interests than ever before. It is breathtaking to see how much of it has changed. Private cooperatives, entrepreneurs, whether it's barbershops, whether it's people buying or selling their homes, people forming their own software development businesses, accounting services businesses. Cuba is changing. And I'm very proud to say that we're changing with it, and we are actually contributing --as much as we can within the reins of the sanctions -- we are contributing as much as we can. And I credit President Obama for that, for his executive actions that have enabled this.

I want to say one thing about a subject that always comes up, and I'd like to preempt it -- the subject of human rights. I see this mission and this visit, this presidential visit, as a great journey of human rights. The right to make a living is one of our most precious rights. We value that very, very much in the U.S. And that's what's happening today in Cuba. Cubans are being enabled to start their own business and to develop their own future, their own vision for their life. And we are contributing to that.

And that's why I'm so convinced that we are on the right track as a country and as an administration. Also watching U.S. companies come in, in hospitality, in agriculture, in infrastructure -- that is also tremendous change. And let's not forget that's happened in about 15 months from the announcement. So things are moving quite rapidly, and it's great to be part of it.

MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Carlos.

So why don't we open it up now to questions for these gentlemen. And who wants to start? Let's see -- Jim.

Q Josh, earlier today, we asked President Castro about political prisoners here in Cuba; he said, if you could provide me with a list we could have those prisoners released. Does the administration have a current list of known political prisoners in Cuba? I know that might be a difficult proposition, but I wanted to follow up with that question.

MR. EARNEST: Well, before we do that, I think what I'd like to do is to take the questions that are directed to these gentlemen, and then we can take the broader questions. You certainly asked a legitimate one and we will come back to it.

Yes, sir.

Q What is the strategy from the business leaders -- we have three right here -- go back to Washington and (inaudible) various degrees of lobbying on the Republican leadership of the House and Senate.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: There is a delegation here -- there are Republicans and Democrats. And there are a lot of businesspeople who have been here who are actively engaged in ensuring that either all of the sanctions are lifted or part of the sanctions are lifted. As you know, it has to go to a vote. It's part of the law.

So the business community is very active. And what I find is that they get even more active after having come to Cuba. So my first recommendation to the business community is come to Cuba. And I'm sure when they go back they will get a lot more engaged than they are today.

MR. SHULMAN: I think as every company, obviously we have to follow the rules and regulations of the various jurisdictions that we operate in. I think Carlos is exactly right. Coming down here, what you realize, and what you realize as you travel all over the world as a business leader is that every one of us basically are the same at heart. We have the same dreams, we have the same hopes and aspirations. And coming down here just reinforces that.

We did have a chance for a couple of hours to meet with counterparts, with entrepreneurs and with business leaders. And they were very candid in their hopes and their dreams. And I think as business leaders, what we can do is express to the government both here in Cuba and in the U.S. our desire to further those commercial relations. Because it matters and it makes a difference. And we want to do that.

Q This is a question for the gentleman from Airbnb. I was hoping that you could just give an idea about the way your business works here in Cuba. What percentage of your growth revenues goes to the Cuban government? Is it more than what you typically would see if you were in the States or dealing with the local municipalities? And if you partner with any particular Cuban entity here in terms of trying to do business in Cuba?

MR. CHESKY: Well, the way our model works is that all of our hosts have licenses here in the government. They are taxed at essentially a sales tax of 10 percent, and so since they're licensed, they have records that go to the government. At the end of the year, they have to declare income tax, and I believe it's $35 a month. So after tax, it's probably fairly similar, actually, to the United States, where we're required -- to hotel occupancy tax.

This has actually already been going on for a generation, frankly, in Havana. Since the early 1990s, we estimate at least 20,000 and even more homes that are shared by Cuban locals. And 4,000 of them are on Airbnb. But the partnership was fairly seamless, and the biggest challenge I think was Internet connectivity. The way we were able to solve that is there are some people who are connected to the Internet and they are hosting partners who connect locally to the host that actually have their homes. And that's essentially how we're able to do business here.

Q -- a profitable market for you? Are you actually making a profit by doing business in Cuba?

MR. CHESKY: Yes. This is an extremely -- Cuba is the fastest-growing market ever for Airbnb, and as a marketplace that works as efficiently, frankly, as any other market.

Q I want to hear from the business leaders about what are their concerns about a Republican coming in as president in the U.S. and possibly rolling back any reforms that President Obama has made. And what are they hearing from the Cuban entrepreneurs about that?

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: I believe that especially after a visit like this, a presidential visit, everything that's done will make it more difficult to reverse this. Every time a U.S. company comes in and signs an agreement, signs a deal, every time you get more travelers coming in -- not as tourists, but travelers coming in and going back home and talking about their experience, I just think there comes a point where reversing it will seem like a very crazy idea. And I think we're just about at that stage. And after a presidential visit, and people looking at Cuba and getting a glimpse of our neighbor -- I think it's just going to make it more and more irreversible. That's my sense of the state of affairs today.

Q And the entrepreneurs, what are you hearing from them?

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Well, the Cubans -- one of the things with hear a lot around town is, gosh, we hope, but let's see. And they know -- they're very in tune with our politics and very in tune with the fact that there will be a change of presidency and elections coming up, and what that will mean for them. And of course, what's on everybody's mind is what we call the embargo -- they call the blockade. I like to think of them as sanctions because there are all these complex sanctions.

But just think about this one. This is the only country in the world where a U.S. citizen cannot travel as a tourist. The only country in the world. So it's time to step back and just think about what we're doing, whether this makes any sense or not. And from my point of view, it makes very, very little sense.

Q We're right up against a deadline, so please excuse me for asking a question directed to you and Ben. But this afternoon, the President reportedly said he would be happy to meet Fidel Castro, to close the Cold War. Could you give us any more specifics that he gave in making those comments, or that you can shed light on about when and where and how a visit like that could take place? And do you still rule out a private visit between the two men happening on this visit?

MR. RHODES: Look, I think the President was speaking generally about the potential for some engagement in the future. But the fact is, on this trip we are not planning to meet with Fidel Castro. We have not requested such a meeting. The President's counterpart is Raul Castro, and that's who he obviously met with today. The Cubans have not requested such a meeting of us. So that meeting is not a part of this trip.

I think he was speaking about the fact that there are a variety of ways in which we're closing a circle on our history. He obviously noted the health issues that Fidel Castro has had. But the fact of matter is, on this visit, neither we or the Cubans have even suggested that such a meeting take place.

MR. EARNEST: We'll just do a couple more for the business leaders. Yes, sir.

Q -- were you always a believer or are you a recent convert to normalizing relations with Cuba? And also, to Daniel Shulman, given some of the challenges -- the Internet connectivity and devises -- are you thinking about making accessible sort of mobile -- for example, such as (inaudible.)

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: I was not always a believer in this policy. I didn't have one moment of a lightning bolt hitting me and I changed from one moment to the other. It's a lifelong process. As a Cuban exile, you think about this every single day. And when the President made the announcement, sometime after that, realizing that for once -- more so than over the last 58 years -- our interests are aligned, U.S. and Cuban interests. So I believe the time is right.

And I feel a bit liberated that I can say that, because in my gut, it gets harder and harder to use talking points, and everybody has got the talking points as to why we should have an embargo against Cuba. But I think the important thing is to step back and follow your gut and follow your heart, and think about whether those talking points are just a little bit stale and a little bit too old. And that's the conclusion I reached.

MR. SHULMAN: I think there is one inevitable fact, and that is that the world is digitizing, and trying to hold that back is like trying to put sand against the waves of the ocean. And as the world digitizes, that brings us closer together, inevitably. I also think it makes things more efficient and allows us to reimagine not what was, but what could be.

And I look at examples like M-Pesa, I look at other examples where mobile technology combined with software has redefined the financial services for many consumers. It makes it faster, easier, simpler, more secure and less expensive. And those are all good things for citizens. And as we think about democratizing financial services, access to the Internet, Internet connectivity, more and more of the world is moving towards smartphones -- there are over 2 billion of them now throughout the world -- inevitably, that will come to Cuba. Inevitably the digitization of many industries will occur, and we believe that financial services will be among them, and we intend to be a leader in helping the Cubans when those regulations lapse.

MR. EARNEST: We'll do one last one for business leaders. Yes, go ahead.

Q Mr. Gutierrez, considering that leaders (inaudible) independent of the fact that Cuba commits to new liberties, both from a political and human rights --

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: I believe that the embargo should be lifted today on the basis of our mutual interest, on the basis of what's right for U.S. national security. And again, your comment -- let's go back to this notion that human rights is a very broad arena, and we're talking about helping the Cuban people earn the right to make a living. And that is based on the government's changes to the economic model -- as they see it, a mixed economy -- so we are helping in human rights. Maybe not on all of them, and there are some that we disagree on, but the progress that has been made I think is significant.

Somebody mentioned today, there are a lot of factors -- 50, 60 different factors of what human rights are. We're working on this one very important factor, which is the right to earn a living. There are others that we'll discuss and that we'll constantly always disagree on, but this isn't the only country in the world where we have some disagreements and we talk about them. But we do trade; we have people-to-people engagements; we play sports together. Cuba should be no different.

MR. EARNEST: Gentlemen, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

MR. RHODES: I'm just going to add one comment to that, which is, in our view, lifting the embargo, frankly, would be an important step forward in terms of our promotion of human rights. And I'll give you a couple of examples. In the past, the United States, for instance, has had to try to distribute phones or certain types of technology to individuals in Cuba. Why not just lift the embargo so that those goods can come here more freely?

Lifting the embargo would bring a lot more activity and a lot more material that is empowering to the Cuban people themselves. So restricting the flow of goods into Cuba is not in any way advancing the human rights of the Cuban people and it may, frankly, in addition to hurting their livelihoods, have denied them access to the types of tools, the types of technology that is fundamentally empowering.

The second thing I'd say is that for decades the embargo has been used as a rationale for not extending further rights or loosening restrictions here in Cuba. The government has used it as an excuse or a source of legitimacy in maintaining a certain type of closed system. And so what we are doing is eliminating that rationale that the United States is to blame for the circumstances of the Cuban people, and nothing could be more powerful in terms of accelerating that dynamic than lifting the embargo.

MR. EARNEST: Jim, let me go back to your question.

Q Yes, I'd be curious -- we asked President Castro about political prisoners and he basically doubted whether there were any in this country, or claimed that there weren't any in this country, and asked us to provide him with a list. I guess the question should be -- and I didn't ask this fully a while ago -- but do you believe, does the administration believe that the government does currently hold political prisoners in Cuba? And is there a list that the administration has?

MR. RHODES: Look, I've shared many such lists with the Cuban government over the course of my two and a half years now of dealing with them. In the course of the talks leading to normalization, we shared a list of 53 prisoners who they released around the December 17th announcement. In the run-up to this visit, a number of the cases that we've been addressing with them were resolved in some fashion, whether that was people who had been released who were not permitted to travel -- some of them being able to travel -- or whether there were several cases related to those 53 individuals that were resolved, and some of those people actually chose to come to the United States.

However, there are certainly additional prisoners whose names we raise on a regular basis with the Cuban government. The fact of the matter is, Jim, I think the heart of the difference with President Castro is not their lack of awareness of these individuals and how we follow their cases and how independent organizations follow their cases. It's their belief that they are not political prisoners; that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law.

And what we have said, in Cuba or in any country around the world, is if someone is detained, imprisoned for a fundamentally nonviolent political offense, like expressing yourself, like demonstrating, freedom of assembly -- that those people inherently are in prison for political purposes, and it's unjust, therefore, under international principles, for those detentions to be carried forward.

So we certainly do continue to have individual cases that we raise of people who are in prison here in Cuba for those types of offenses. I think the basic difference is the Cuban rejection that they're not in prison for violating their laws, and our belief that either their laws or their practices crack down on certain types of behavior that we believe should be allowed in every country.

I would say that the government has shifted in recent years from an approach of long-term detention of individuals to more short-term detentions. And so what you see is a cycle of people protesting and then being detained for a short period of time, then released. And that cycle continues to play out. So there has been some change in terms of the long-term detained individuals and a reduction in that number. However there are still people that we follow their cases, we raise their cases with the government, we share lists with the government, just as we also raise concerns over the short-term detention practices.

Q And if I many follow up, since he seemed to issue this demand, do you feel any need to say, well, here's another list? Did anybody have that conversation following the press conference, or did you see that as sort of bluster?

MR. RHODES: There is very rarely an engagement in which we're not raising either lists or individual cases. That will certainly be the case going forward. And again, I think the disagreement and difference that that conversation raises is simply their rejection of the notion that those people are political prisoners.

MR. EARNEST: Olivier.

Q Thanks, guys. A couple questions. One is, any movement on getting American companies to be able to hire directly, without going through the Cuban government? And the other is, in December, the President said he would not come to Cuba if he didn't see progress, and he didn't really specify what kind of progress -- what did he see in December and now that encouraged him to come on this visit?

MR. EARNEST: I think he said that in a scintillating interview with Yahoo, is that right?

MR. RHODES: So on your second question, where we see progress and where we see change in Cuba is in a number of the areas we discussed today. So, for instance, we've seen this steady growth in the self-employed sector, which we believe is both an economic and a human rights issue, because when people are self-employed, when people control their own livelihoods, they are fundamentally empowered in a way that they would not be if they were reliant on the state.

That sector is growing very fast in the Cuban economy. It is benefiting significantly from our policy changes -- from the remittances that are flowing down to Cuba, from the engagement that they're having with Americans and American businesses. We see that as a positive trend line that we wanted to reinforce. And that's, frankly, why you had the President go to a paladar last night, meet with cuentapropistas today. We want to be accelerating this process because we think it's good for Cuba's economy and good for the rights and livelihoods of the Cuban people.

We see these incremental steps that we would like to be faster on issues related to access to the Internet and connectivity in Cuba, and we want to be finding whatever way we can to support that -- whether that's the U.S. government raising those issues, whether that's a company like Cisco today announcing that they're going to have an IT academy here in Cuba, whether that's our telecommunications companies reaching agreements to provide services here in Cuba -- which is why your phones and BlackBerrys may work today whereas they wouldn't have a couple of years ago.

So there's some progress in these spaces that are on the overlap of economic empowerment, but also individual empowerment that comes through access to resources, access to information. Where there's been less progress and we've seen kind of the sustained pattern of behavior from the government is on issues related to political speech, political assembly, detention of activists. And that's been a common thread before, during and after normalization.

Our belief is that having direct dialogue with the government about this, being more deeply engaged here in Cuba, in the long run ultimately is going to open up more space for the Cuban people. And the fact of the matter is it is not as if the human rights situation was benefiting from the previous policy of being closed off, and having the embargo and having a very restrictive approach to Cuba. In fact, the Cuban government was very comfortable in that position. They were not in any way making changes to address it. We believe that coming here is part of an effort to continue to promote an opening that in the long run is going to be to the benefit of both the economic circumstances of the Cuban people and their ability to determine their future.

On the first question, really quick, so, yes, there's a number of issues we've been raising with them. The step that they took that was certainly high on our list was their announcement that they will be removing this penalty on dollar conversions, which is important. It allows American travelers and other travelers to be able to utilize the dollar and not pay essentially a tax. Frankly, that's going the allow them to spend more money here, which is part of our policy and we want that to reach the Cuban people. At the same time, it's going to make it easier for our businesses to operate so they don't have to switch to euros or other currencies. That was a positive step.

Direct hiring is an issue that we raise with them. I'd say the two biggest long-term issues we raise with them are the unification of their currency and the direct hiring issue. On the direct hiring issue -- well, frankly, on both of those issues, what they have indicated to us is they have every intention in moving in that direction, but they are not yet there yet.

And part of what we're trying to do is accelerate those processes by having this dialogue, by having our business community engage them to explain why these would be positive changes for their economy; for having other governments who share our concerns raise these similar issues. So I think on those more structural reforms, it's not as if they reject the notion, it is they are moving on a slower timeline than we would recommend. But that's one reason why we're going to keep at it on those issues.


Q I wanted to get the back story on this extraordinary news conference that we had today. How hard did the White House have to push for that to happen? Were there any conditions that the Cubans asked for or received to do that? When did you guys find out that it would be able to happen? And did you get any sense afterwards of how the Cubans felt about how it went?

MR. RHODES: We raised this issue throughout the trip planning. The Cubans indicated that that's certainly not their normal practice. And essentially, the points that we were making up until today were that everywhere the President goes he takes questions from his traveling press. That's just a part of what we do and we think it's important. That the spirit of normalization and the opening between our countries suggests that we should be able to stand before our assembled press and take questions.

And again, as the President said today, that's part of having this debate and this dialogue. We're not afraid of having criticism directed at us or having tough questions directed at us, and we think that that should be the approach of the Cuban government.

It didn't really get finalized until today when President Obama saw President Castro and he indicated, yes, he'd be happy to take those questions. They certainly knew of our interest, but we didn't finalize the format for that press conference until really right as the meeting was commencing. I think he wanted to speak to President Obama and tell him directly that he would take those questions.

Again, I'd say it's very important -- it's certainly not normal for the Cuban President to be asked questions like that here in Cuba or anywhere else, to have to engage in that back-and-forth. And we believe that's healthy, because it's all part of bringing these issues out in the open and subjecting them to scrutiny. And there's no greater scrutiny that you can get than answering questions from you guys.

I have not talked to the Cubans about their reaction, but I think it was the right thing to do. I think it's good that President Castro, in addition to answering the question from the Cuban press, answered the questions from the U.S. press. I think it was illuminating that it took place, and it highlighted essentially the differences we have in our political systems and our approaches to a whole range of issues.


Q Can I follow on that? Can you give us some of the President's reaction to the news conference? And what was your understanding of -- what did you guys tell Castro that the format was going to be? Because he seemed very confused by Andrea and Jim asking questions. Did he think his one question versus the President's two questions was only going to come from his side? And then I have a Google question, too.

MR. RHODES: No, the format was that we would take the question from a U.S. journalist, a Cuban journalist, and a U.S. journalist. That was what we fully anticipated. It may be that given how infrequently those types of engagements happen in Cuban that the notion that you all we'd ask questions of both leaders certainly was not the normal practice, but he knew, and we were very transparent in saying our journalists tend to ask questions of both leaders and sometimes they even ask more than one question. (Laughter.) So we explained that. I mean, we were transparent about that.

Again, I think it's an unusual occurrence. But again, he did answer the questions. It wasn't quite as unusual as when Xi Jinping didn't answer Mark Landler's question until he had answered the state-run question. So it lends itself to a good back-and-forth. And that's a great thing.

And look, that's part of opening up space. That would not have happened without this policy -- without a policy of normalization, without an engagement with the Cuban government, you wouldn't have the U.S. President standing next to the Cuban President answering questions from assembled press. That alone I think indicates that we're in a new era and one that is a healthier way of dealing with these differences and simply being in our own corners.

Q What was the President's response? What were his thoughts?

MR. RHODES: He thought it was interesting. He thought it was a truly remarkable occurrence and a positive step that you just had the fact of the two of them standing there taking questions. A lot of what we're doing is new. I mean, this whole policy feels like everything that we do we're doing for the first time, or the first time in 57 years. So, that, he has commented on, like many of these things, including that everything that we are doing feels like we're doing something for the first time.

Q Can you explain what the President was referring to when he told ABC that he had a pending announcement on Google? What's your guys' expectation of that?

MR. RHODES: So Google has been in discussions with the Cuban government about a range of different ways that they could contribute to connectivity in Cuba and contribute to enhanced connectivity for the Cuban people. And they've made progress in those discussions. It's not complete today, but that's something that Google is continuing to pursue. And it's something we very much support. We've supported all of our companies in these engagements. We think it's particularly important that you have tech and telecommunications companies pursuing these agreements.

The Cisco IT academy today will build capacity here, will provide an opening for Cisco to be operating here. Again, the telecommunications companies operating here is important. Hopefully that is the beginning of something that continues to grow, so whether it's Google or Cisco or AT&T or Sprint or Verizon, that their kind of first entry into Cuba is the beginning of a relationship that evolves as Cuba gets more online.

So as the President said, as with other companies, we think it's very good that Google is pursuing a range of initiatives with the Cuban government, and we would certainly support them as well as any other U.S. company that, consistent with our existing laws and regulations, wants to do business here.

Q Did the Presidents discuss Guantanamo? And did President Castro, did he discuss the U.S.'s human rights record? And what was President Obama's response?

MR. RHODES: Yes, the Cuban government certainly raised Guantanamo. It's normal for them to raise Guantanamo in just about every engagement we have with them. They obviously believe that our presence -- put aside the prison for a moment -- just our very presence in Guantanamo is a violation of their sovereignty and that we should restore the facility to Cuban sovereignty. We've made very clear that that's not on the table. Frankly, our focus right now is on closing the prison. So, essentially, it's an area of difference. And I'm sure they're going to continue to raise it.

With respect to human rights, I think what President Castro said publicly is a pretty good reflection of his views. In the past, he's been critical of everything, from the fact that we have Guantanamo, to practices the U.S. is engaged in overseas; violations, in his view, of sovereignty of other countries. A whole host of issues related to the nature of America's economy and inequality. So those are, I think, standard points that we heard from the Cuban government on. So that's kind of part of a discussion. But it wasn't necessarily a debate about those issues today. But I think Guantanamo they would put in the category of something that is a violation of their sovereignty. And in the past, frankly, they've criticized publicly and directly to us the detention practice at Guantanamo. So, to them, it's a double issue that they raise.

But again, as the President said, we're not afraid to have that debate. We think it's healthy for countries to surface their views on these things. We think the Cuban government should take that same approach, that they should welcome a debate here in Cuba and globally about human rights, because ultimately there are different views here in Cuba about that.

Q And the administration is going to close the prison but keep the land?

MR. RHODES: Yes, that's our policy.

Q Why?

MR. RHODES: Well, right now, the fundamental truth is that the overwhelming focus has been on closing the prison. I think generally speaking, in the past, Guantanamo has served a purpose on certain humanitarian responses, certain migration responses. And so that would be, I think the view of what the facility would be used for. But frankly, that would be a determination that the Pentagon would have to make about what they would be doing at the facility if the prison is closed.

Q I'm wondering if you could take us ahead to tomorrow a little bit. It's hard to mention the President is going to say anything he didn't already say today. But can you talk to us about what he'll say in that speech, about what he hopes to do in that dissident meeting. And are you expecting the release of more folks tomorrow, or at least the promise not to arrest anyone tomorrow, after that meeting? And I guess that's it.

MR. RHODES: Well, look, the speech is very important because it's the one chance on this visit to really step back and just speak directly to the Cuban people and all of the Cuban people. We've engaged thus far the government. We've engaged entrepreneurs. We engaged the faith community yesterday, the Catholic Church. But tomorrow, the President sees that as an opportunity to speak to all Cubans. And the fact that that will be able to be broadcast and received here in Cuba provides an important opportunity for him to lay out his vision for what the future is.

And I think what he'll do is pull together all of these different themes that he's been discussing about the history between our countries, about why this is the right moment to be making these changes, but also to say why he believes that we should be hopeful for the future here in Cuba -- what we can do together as countries, but also how we address difficult issues, whether it's Cuba's ongoing efforts to reform its economy, whether it's our respective views of human rights and how we see that connecting to the future that the Cuban people are able to build here; whether that's the future role of Cuba in the Americas and their work with us on a variety of issues.

So I think he'll want to step back and lay out the vision for where this is going. And there's been all this activity and all the debate, and this all churn in different areas. Tomorrow, I think he wants to pull that together, explain why he took the steps that he did on December 17th, explain where this is headed, why he believes it will succeed, why he believes that the Cuban people will have a better future.

And the last thing I'd say is that we see it as a speech to the Cuban people. And that includes Cubans in the United States. This visit is a very powerful moment for the Cuban American community. Some of them are very excited, and some of them are ambivalent, some of them are opposed. And given the very complicated history, the President believes that one of the most important things that we can be doing is building bridges and reconnecting, and facilitating the reconciliation of the Cuban American community with Cubans here on the island. That's important from a human perspective, from a reconciliation of families perspective. It's, frankly, also important to Cuba's future, because there's a great resource in the Cuban American community. Already a significant amount of the remittances that are supporting small businesses here come from that community. So he'll speak to that audience as well.

On the civil society meeting, I think he'll want to hear directly from the participants about what their experiences are. Cuba is not a monolith. The government itself is not a monolith. And certainly the government and civil society have differences. And so I think it's mainly an opportunity for him to hear from people who are active in different ways, and advocating for more rights, advocating for more opportunity about what their life is life and what they seek for the future.

In terms of detentions, again, I think that's an ongoing topic of discussion between us. A number of the people who are participating in the meeting tomorrow are people whose cases over the years we followed very closely and have raised with the Cuban government. And my expectation is that will con to be the case going forward.

Q Political prisoners on the other side of the coin -- what about American citizens who are wanted in the United States for crimes they committed, who are being given sanctuary by the Cuban government?

MR. RHODES: So the issue of fugitives is also a feature of our discussions with the Cuban government. We have a range of people whose extradition we're very interested in here in Cuba. Frankly, they have a number of people in the United States whose cases they were able to raise with us. We were unable to essentially have a channel of communication on those issues for many years. And what we've been doing since normalization is we've established a law enforcement dialogue so our relevant ministries can raise those cases directly, as well as other issues, and pursue a resolution.

The fact of the matter is, it's been difficult in both directions thus far to make progress on the issue of fugitives. But if we establish a basis of dialogue, exchange of info on these issues, our hope and expectation is we can make more progress going forward, either with individuals who are already here or individuals who may come here in the future. So there are two, we believe, that are better to be able to raise these issues directly through law enforcement channels than to deny ourselves that capacity.

Q Ben, what's your reading of the arrest that happened on Sunday, just the same day the President was coming? Will you expect that to happen at all?

MR. RHODES: Sorry, the arrest you mean?

Q The arrest of those activists on Sunday.

MR. RHODES: Well, look, this is exactly what one of our principal differences is with the Cuban government, which is that there is a pattern of these short-term detentions or harassment of individuals who are seeking to express what we believe are universal human rights. You should have the ability to protest peacefully. You should have the ability to speak your mind, even if it's critical of the government. And unfortunately, it's all too common that we see this cycle of arrests. That's certainly been the case with the Ladies in White in particular. And it's been a focus of ours. That's one of the reasons why the President wrote a letter to the Ladies in White, just to make clear to them that this is something he'd be raising with President Castro and he's be talking about while he was here.

Those are the types of practices we'd like to see changed. Every time we see a detention of individuals for expressing those rights -- and there have been detentions of Ladies in White activists before and during this visit, and we will watch very carefully whether they continue in the future -- we immediately raise those cases with the government.

But we believe that it's important for us to be able to engage that community directly ourselves, so that we're talking to them and hearing from them, and understanding what their views are and what their plans are, just as we are able to raise those cases with the government.

And part of what's happening in Cuba here is, as this is a focus of attention, as normalization proceeds, as there's greater people traveling here, greater media attention on the island, you see people looking to express themselves. And that's healthy. That's what opening up to the world is about, is people being about to see the diversity of views among the Cuban people. And so that's something that is going to continue to be front and center in our policy in terms of trying to open up that space between Cuba and the world, and trying to support the rights of individual Cubans to be heard.

Q Is that something you were expecting that could happen?

MR. RHODES: Unfortunately, yes -- because the sad truth is that this has been a pattern for a long time now, where the Ladies in White protest on Sunday and then you have the protests broken up. You have a number of individuals detained. And again, we certainly would like to see that cycle broken. We certainly would like to see anybody -- not just the Ladies in White -- anybody be able to express themselves peacefully here in Cuba, as anywhere else in the world. And so this is a constant element of our dialogue with the Cuban government. It's why we think it's important to have a human rights dialogue here in Cuba, so that we're making clear that this is part of our relationship. It's not just that we're going to talk about the things that we agree on or the things that maybe we have differences, but we're working through them on the economy. No, a feature of our relationship is going to be also having a platform to discuss the things that we care about, including the things we disagree with.

Q I wanted to ask about the issue with Guantanamo. Did the Cubans -- I'm just curious how much Guantanamo, one, came up. But two, did the Cubans bring up the idea that I was told that their lease with the United States, as the United States is in violation of their lease because there's no provision for putting a prison on the U.S. lease? That's question one. And the second question is, is there a concern by the administration that sort of the China model that Raul Castro likes and that we're sort of pursuing here -- we have great economic exchanges -- whether that might not trickle down into human rights as sort of the situation with China being an economic power, but not having much freedom for dissent?

MR. RHODES: So, first, their objection to Guantanamo goes beyond the specific issue of the prison. So that wasn't the focus. It was more just simply the fact that this land should be restored to them, that it's illegitimate in the first instance, and that they want this -- in their view, normalization isn't complete until Guantanamo is returned. And that's the main point that they made.

On your second question, look, we've been very clear that Cubans will decide the future of Cuba, that we're not going to impose a political system or institute regime change in Cuba. On the specific question, what I would just say is there's enormous differences between China and Cuba, or even Vietnam and Cuba in the sense that, number one, you have this tremendous kind of cultural affinity between the American and Cuban people. You have an enormous Cuban American community that is deeply invested in the future of Cuba. And you also just have the basic proximity of Cuba being 90 miles from the United States. So that doesn't determine exactly how Cuba's evolution is going to go. But it certainly suggests that an opening between the United States and Cuba is going to look very different from the United States and China, a country with a billion people on the other side of the world, or even Vietnam similarly had a great geographic and cultural distance from us.

Opening up this space with a country that shares so much with us, that has so much common family bonds, common history, coupled with the fact that this is our closest neighbor, other than those that border the United States, I think suggests that that opening is more likely to play out differently than China and Vietnam.

Q Both Presidents made allusions to not having discussed Venezuela today, that it came up and this was something that was somehow kind of left unreconciled and in the air. And in light of the fact that President Maduro made a kind of lightning trip here, just similar in a way as what he did before the Americas Summit in April in Panama, I just wondered if you could expand a little bit on that. And one final follow-up question on the whole issue of U.S. businesses. I just wonder if in any of these conversations President Castro or some of the other Cubans have ever made it clear which companies they definitely do not want here. Are there certain companies or certain types of companies that they have said they do not want here?

MR. RHODES: That's interesting. No, they haven't -- at least not in the conversations I'm familiar with. I do think that they are being somewhat cautious about this scale of the opening. So it's less about companies and certain sectors, and more about I think they'd be wary at signing 100 deals tomorrow. And suddenly they've got the U.S. business community an enormous role in their economy.

So I think part of what they're trying to do is figure out how to view the pace of the opening to U.S. businesses, and also how does that coincide with the pace of their own economic reforms. And so they're trying to calibrate where does the opening come in terms of U.S. business, and where does the pace come from in terms of their changes.

We've been very mindful to try to have multiple sectors. So it's not just hospitality. It's good that Starwood is going to be co-managing hotels. Frankly, that's a commercial opening. It also means more travelers. That also means more people eating in cuentapropista-owned restaurants, or shopping in cuentapropista-owned stores. So it's both going to benefit that state-run sector of hotels, but also benefit the Cuban people directly.

That's the same reason why it's good that the cruise lines have reached agreements, and you're going to have more Americans be able to come down here. At the same time, though, we think it's important that you also have tech companies, as I said, or agricultural companies like Caterpillar beginning to see what they can do here. Or GE is talking about what they can do here. We want to see that diversity. And frankly, the Cubans have welcomed it.

I guess I would suggest that the Cubans are probably going to be cautious about tech and telecom in terms of essentially having American tech companies completely wire the island. They would, I think, want to have a diversity of foreign investors and developers with respect to their Internet access and telecommunications infrastructure. And look, that makes sense. We obviously always prefer U.S. businesses. But we also want them to get connected in any way they can. We happen to believe U.S. businesses are best for that.

On your first question, Venezuela didn't come up in the meeting. It's been a regular feature in our discussions. What's interesting is, the point we would make to the Cubans is that our interest is in stability in Venezuela. Nobody in the region benefits from an economic collapse or catastrophe in Venezuela. That could have knock-on effects for many countries and certainly have knock-on effects for Cuba. So there's actually a basis for the United States and Cuba and Brazil and Argentina and Colombia and others to agree on the need for there to be a political circumstance in Venezuela that brings stability.

Our view is, the way for that to take place is for there to be a more coherent dialogue between the opposition that just won the parliamentary elections in the Maduro administration; that, in fact, just trying to back Maduro 100 percent without creating the space for this opposition to essentially work to determine what the economic program is in partnership with the government is a potential recipe for instability.

And so we're trying to find essentially that common ground so that we're working together. We obviously would probably have diff views about the practices of the Venezuelan government with respect to its people, but the fact of the matter is, in this case, our interest in stability and our economic interests coincide with our political interests, and just essentially wanting the duly-elected parliament to have an effective dialogue and ability to work with the administration.

I'll just close on one point, because you gave the opening, which is, this Cuba policy is also a Latin America policy. This was the main anchor on our standing in Latin America for decades. The normalization with Cuba in many ways is also a normalization within the Americas. And we've had an enormously positive reception from every country in the Americas to this. It's changed the conversation. It's why we're at the peace table with the Colombians here in Havana. We're going to be able to go on to Argentina, which just elected a pro-American leader after many years of having a leader who rejected engagement with the United States.

What we've seen is, when we came into office the United States was essentially in an isolated position, and many of our critics in the hemisphere were ascendant at that point. Frankly, because of what we've done for many years, including the normalization with Cuba, the conversation has totally changed in Latin America.

So it's important to note that we see what we're doing here in Cuba as fundamentally connected to trying to turn the page in the hemisphere so that we're clearing the air of history, which is very polluted air in different parts of the hemisphere, and working together to solve problems, because there's great opportunity here.

7:10 P.M. CST

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