Background Briefing on Talks to Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations With Cuba

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
February 25, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Tony. And thanks to everyone for joining the call. As you know, we have talks coming up this week, and we wanted to offer this opportunity for a background call with a Senior State Department Official. This call will be on background, so no names or titles. But for your information the person speaking today will be [Senior State Department Official]. And again, no names or titles, Senior State Department Official from here on out.

And with that, and knowing that our time is a little bit tight, I will hand the floor over to our speaker for some introductory remarks, and then we will get to questions. So please, why don’t you lead off.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, [Moderator]. Thanks, everybody, for being with us today. I’m happy to be with everyone, again in some cases, since I know some of you have been following this quite a bit.

We are looking forward to the conversations we’re going to have on Friday with our Cuban counterparts. This is, as you know, the second round of conversations on normalization with the Cuban Government. This session will focus entirely on the restoration of diplomatic relations, which was the first half of what we discussed in Havana about a month ago. We will focus on just what we need to do and get resolved to open embassies in each other’s countries or transition our interest section to embassies. And what I can tell you is that both sides, I think, have an interest in doing that as quickly as possible, given what our presidents have announced.

These are, by their nature, diplomatic discussions, and so unlike a little bit of the history-making trip a month ago, they may seem a little bit disappointingly workman-like in their nature this time. But this is where we roll up our sleeves as diplomats and sit down at the table and make sure that we hammer all of the details out to get embassies up and running the way we have embassies all around the world. So that’s what we’re planning to do this Friday, and we hope to move this process along as quickly as possible.

Assistant Secretary Jacobson will obviously be leading our delegation. I expect and know that Josefina Vidal on the Cuban side will be leading theirs. Beginning, I think, around 9 o’clock in the morning and ending with encounters with you all at the end of the day.

So let me stop with that, and open it to your questions.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, if you could remind participants how to get in the queue.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. So again, for your questions, you may queue up by pressing * 1.

MODERATOR: All right. And I think we’re ready to go to the first question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. And that will come from Felicia Schwartz with Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Thanks so much for doing this. My question is: Can you be any more specific on the timeframe? Are you looking at the Summit of Americas as a sort of signpost or anything on when you hope to get this done by?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Felicia. I think – I certainly think that our presidents and my secretary would be delighted if we could have everything worked out in time for the Summit of the Americas. But that depends a lot on how our counterparts come to the table prepared to get things done and whether they are comfortable with the things we need in order to run an embassy the way we do in other places around the world.

So I am hopeful about that, but I think it’s really important that we not tie it to any particular event, because there are things that we need to get agreement on and there are some mechanical things we need to do, obviously, like making sure that we do all the paperwork that ends the relationship with the Swiss protecting power and all the rest of that. But that doesn’t take very long if we get agreement on things. So I’ve said before I don't think it’s rocket science, so I hope we can be done in that kind of a timeframe, but I just can’t be sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question in the queue. That will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. The Cubans have said they basically have one concern before embassies are reopened, and that is the listing of the state sponsor of terrorism designation. Can you tell us where you are on that? With the 45-day waiting period, it would appear that that – we’ve already passed the point where embassies could be opened before the Summit of Americas or are about to pass that point. And also, are you looking for some kind of commitment from the Cubans in terms of embassy access and freedom for diplomats in the country that you’ve outlined before, before announcing any change in that status?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me start off with the state sponsor of terrorism list. It’s important to know that those – these two processes are really separate. The process of review of the state sponsor of terrorism list is a separate process from that of restoration of diplomatic relations, and we don’t link the two. Obviously we’re moving forward on the review of Cuba on that list as quickly as we can, and we hope that we will have that completed very soon. But we don’t think that that should be linked to the restoration of diplomatic relations.

We certainly know that the 45-day clock that runs when the President makes a recommendation on this or makes a determination and sends it to Congress, should he decide to take Cuba off the list – and I’m not prejudging that – that would take us I suppose to beyond the Summit of the Americas or get us very close, even if that were to happen right now. But the fact is that we don’t link those two things, and in fact, I don’t think that that’s a helpful sort of comparison or linkage.

But I also think that when the President makes his decision he will have made the decision, and this is a notification to Congress. So I think that the Cubans should feel comfortable with that, should that be the case. It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations if they would not link those two things. Then they would not have to feel like they had to wait for 45 days, et cetera. So that’s sort of a delay of their own making, frankly. This is a review that we’re undertaking independently.

The other thing is that – I think you mentioned the other things that were talked about during the first round. Those are the things that we’re going to be talking about in this conversation. Those are the – we’ve talked about the functions of diplomats in embassies. Those are the things that we will be talking about in these discussions. They’re the kinds of things that are envisioned in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Consular Relations and the way our embassies operate. So yes, those are the kinds of things that have to be agreed before we can have an embassy, because embassies function with diplomats able to move around in a different way than they do right now in Havana.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from David Adams with Thomson Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Thanks very much. I just wanted to follow up on the delisting of Cuba from the terrorism list. You said that was something that was possible that the report would be ready soon. Do you know how soon? I mean, are we talking still weeks or months, because I think back on December 17th, it was six months process. Has that been accelerated? How quickly could that be presented to Congress?

And secondly, you’re quick to – Cuba was the highest level trip by an American delegation. What does -- how does this one rank from Cubans in the United States?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, on the first question, all I’m going to say about the timeframe is I don't believe it will be months in terms of the state sponsor of terrorism review. I do not believe it will be months, and beyond that, I’m not going to speculate further on how quickly we can finish that up.

On the second question, in terms of a Cuban delegation, I’m not really sure. I know that Josefina Vidal has been to the United States quite a few times, so it’s not – it is a different kind of delegation because of what we’re discussing, but in rank it’s not the first time somebody of her rank or she have been here. So – and obviously, there have been lots of delegations considerably higher for the United Nations, but that’s obviously a different issue.

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

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Jo Biddle with AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you very much indeed. Just on the state sponsor of terrorism, who within the State Department is actually carrying out that review? You said it was a separate process. So – and who’s actually inputting into it? And on the question of how these talks progress, would you envisage there might be yet another round of talks, this time possibly back in Havana? Thanks very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, when I said that they were separate processes, I didn’t necessarily mean different human beings or different offices, although, in fact, there are multiple offices involved in review of the state sponsor of terrorism issue. What I meant was the process of restoration of diplomatic relations we believe to be a substantively different process than the process of the review of state sponsor of terrorism listing. There are a couple of different offices at the State Department that are involved in that. Obviously, most particularly the office that deals with counterterrorism is obviously involved in that review, and obviously as well the Western Hemisphere Bureau.

On the rounds of talks, I’ve at least learned enough as a negotiator not to speculate on what comes after negotiations where you haven’t even done this round. I’m always an optimist and think that we’re going to get a huge amount done in this round, so I don’t know what comes next. But we do know that our presidents and our ministers, in my case the Secretary, want us to get to an agreement on restoration of diplomatic relations, and we will keep working until we get that done.

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

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. Two questions. I apologize if I missed it, but at a minimum can you say whether you would hope to have at least an agreement in principle about an embassy reopening and timeline there by this Friday?

And then on a different note, Havana is hosting these peace talks between the FARC and Colombia. The U.S. is now sort of newly trying to facilitate some of that or have a role here. Does that change the environment in any way? I mean, does it favorably dispose a view towards Cuba as a force for counterterrorism or what changes now that the U.S. is part of that process which the Cubans have been playing a prominent role in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question in terms of a timeline and the agreement in principle, I think certainly Assistant Secretary Jacobson and Josefina Vidal – are not the human beings who are going to be able to say the final yes on whatever we may agree to at a negotiating table, so whatever we do achieve in these talks will always be an agreement in principle until we take it to our bosses. So I certainly hope to get as far as we can in the conversations on Friday. Whether that’s everything on the table and in a list or whether it’s most things, I couldn’t say. But I certainly hope we can get as far as possible and then take it to our respective bosses and get agreement to take that and move forward.

On the issue of the Colombia peace talks, I want to start out by saying that we’re not facilitating those peace talks. There are a number of countries that have been chosen by Colombia and the FARC to support and facilitate those peace talks, namely Cuba and Norway, and in a different role Venezuela and Chile, but Cuba and Norway most prominently. What we have done in the appointment of Bernie Aronson as a special envoy at the request of the Colombian Government was to play a more active role in support of these peace talks. As you know, we’ve been supporting them quite vocally, supporting the Colombian Government since they began and we were asked by the Colombian Government to play this slightly more active role. That is really quite separate and apart from what’s been going on and will go on in the future with Cuba. But it is certainly true that Cuba’s support for the peace process has been, I think, something that from what the Colombian Government tells us has been positive in their own desire to get peace in Colombia and to end 50-plus years of civil war.

And so if you look at the reports that have been done in the past on Cuba as – and the reports on terrorism that have been done and Cuba’s – the report on Cuba vis-a-vis terrorism over the past years, one of the issues that has been in that report has been the presence of the FARC in Cuba. Right now the presence of the FARC in Cuba is focused on a peace process, and that’s a good thing. But I think the two issues are really quite separate in terms of how we move forward bilaterally with Cuba. Witness the fact that my counterpart in these conversations has nothing to do with the Colombia peace process.

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

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. Listen, I know that you say that from the United States point of view there is no link between the removal from the state sponsor of terror list and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but the Cubans made it very clear that from their point of view they are completely linked. So for – one reason for that is the banking, that they’ve been unable to do any banking in this country. So I’m wondering – has any progress been made on that front, and have you pretty much accepted that they won’t agree to reestablishing relations until they’re off the SST, and do you have a contingency plan in case they’re not taken off the list?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me start out by saying that you’re right, Indira, in the sense that banking has been a serious problem for many foreign governments and their diplomatic missions over the last couple of years, but Cuba in particular has had great difficulty since the bank that they had been using ended their banking relationship. And we have worked even prior to the President’s December 17th announcement to try and help them get a banking relationship. We believe that’s important because we have certain responsibilities as the host country for their mission and because reciprocity really requires that we help them get a bank here. We have business that it is productive for them to be able to not in cash but with a bank. They do visa processing and process American visas for going to Cuba, et cetera. So this is an important problem that we’ve been trying to help them resolve even before the restoration and normalization process began.

It’s also true that it may very well be easier for them to find a bank that would accept an account if their name were – the country were to be removed from the state sponsor of terror list. But the fact is that that process is ongoing and we’re just going to have to see how that comes out.

In terms of their making it a condition, I have to see what my counterparts come to the table with on Friday. I’ve seen the same press reports and the same attribution as you have, but I like to wait until I’m sitting at the table with my counterparts to really hear the positions.

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

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Alejandro Gonzalez with 14 y Medio. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. I’m from Catorce y Medio here in the States and I would like to ask you, Gustavo Machin from the Cuban delegation has said that he’s going to come to the table with a proposition to talk about human rights in addition to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Have you received anything regarding this, and are you thinking about conversing about human rights as well if it is brought to the table on Friday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, Alejandro. And I think this is interesting because I think the – what we said in Havana about a month ago, and this is really sort of a continuation, is that there are a number of dialogues on different substantive issues that we want to have with the Cuban Government. One of those is on human rights, and we did discuss that in Havana. There are a number of dialogues that we hope to move forward on fairly quickly with the Cuban Government. So if the Cuban Government is – and frankly, we put human rights among the dialogues we want to have as soon as possible. So my hope is that the Cuban Government indeed is coming with a response to that request that we schedule that human rights dialogue as soon as possible along with a couple of others that we think are now going to be in process, and we may have more to say about that at the end of the talks.

But we would not be having the substantive conversation on human rights this Friday. What we would be doing is setting up the date for the experts to get together on the subject, whether it’s human rights, or for example, trafficking in persons or counternarcotics or other forms of substantive conversations that we want to proceed with. So the actual conversations will be in the future. What we may get agreement on Friday separate from the diplomatic conversations would be agreement for dates to have those meetings.

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

OPERATOR: That would come from Lori Montenegro with Telemundo Network. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you for doing this call and taking our questions. [Senior State Department Official], at the beginning of the call, you said that with regards to opening an embassy and so forth, it all depended also if your counterparts were coming to the table with some concessions or some of the things that you would be requiring in order to run an embassy the same way you run it in other nations. Could you tell us what exactly do you mean by that? What would the U.S. need to see from the Cuban Government?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think, Lori, I’ve laid out some of this, and I’m not going to get into too many more details than I’ve laid out. I’ll go over a couple things, but I’m not going to get into too much more detail, because that’s kind of the reason we have diplomatic talks. We like to keep some of it in the room before we get together and hope for progress. And I want to just emphasize that despite the fact that each of us obviously wants to talk to the press and wants to talk a little bit about what we’re going to do on Friday, in the end, opening of embassies and the restoration of diplomatic relations is fundamentally something that gets done by mutual consent, right?

So both of us have to come to the table in the spirit of getting to an agreement on these things and not putting so many obstacles in the way that are not linked directly to how we function as diplomats in each other’s countries that we can’t get to a reasonable place. And that’s why we focused really only on issues that we see as directly related to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which are the two fundamental documents that govern how we operate as diplomats in foreign countries, right, or how all diplomats operate in foreign countries.

It’s things like our diplomats’ ability to move around the country. It’s things like how people can approach our embassy and get into our embassy. It’s things like getting shipments in for our embassy. These are the kinds of logistics and administrative and diplomatic functions that we feel we have to have in places to do our jobs.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Luis Alonso with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. My question was already asked. Thanks a lot.

MODERATOR: All right, the next one.

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

QUESTION: Thank you. Real quickly, [Senior State Department Official], on this, the terror list review, why is it taking so long? The President, I guess, initiated this process December 17th. I’m just as a layman trying to understand what is involved and why it would take so long to reach a conclusion.

And secondly, on the bank issue, as the U.S. Government, is there not a process to give a bank a waiver of some sort to do business with the Cubans?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me just take the latter question for a minute. I think the bottom line is that there is no ability – obviously, all banks around the world, if you will, have seen the President’s statements on December 17th. They have seen that we’re moving in a new direction on Cuba.

But the truth of the matter is Cuba is the most sanctioned country in the world vis-a-vis the United States, and you have also seen a lot of cases over the last number of years against banks for their interactions with foreign entities, whether those entities were involved in violating sanctions laws or the bank was violating sanction laws or there was money laundering or there were other forms of violations of U.S. laws. And banks have become incredibly wary of doing anything that they fear could run them afoul of a particular area of U.S. law that might involve sanctions against a country. So when you take a country that is the most sanctioned under U.S. law, it becomes that much more complicated.

And so, no, I don’t think that anybody in the U.S. Government – and this is probably a better question for the Department of Justice – I don’t think anybody in the U.S. Government can give any kind of assurances or waivers to either a bank or to Cuba to get into such a relationship. It’s an independent evaluation by a bank board as to whether they feel comfortable getting into those relationships. And we may hope and even want a private entity to engage in a banking relationship, but we can’t force them to and we can’t give them any kind of a legal waiver. There’s just – it doesn’t exist, I don’t think.

Your first question was on why it’s taking so long, and I’ve got to tell you it’s just these processes tend to be a little bit more complicated than they seem, and that’s all I’m going to say.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ve got time for just a couple more questions, so we’ll try to go through these quickly. And if you can keep your questions short, that’s helpful. Let’s move on.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next question is from Pam Dockins with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have a follow-up question regarding Cuba and human rights. You mentioned that the actual conversations will take place at a future date. But as I’m sure you’re aware, and Kerry’s testimony on the Hill – a number of lawmakers expressed concern, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen today – when you get to that point, what kind of commitment will the U.S. seek? How will you measure progress? And could a lack of progress hold up the process for reopening embassies?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me – yeah, it’s a good question. I think the human rights dialogue is the first such open conversation that we’re going to have with the Cuban Government. It is quite honestly premised on having diplomatic relations. In other words, that’s what comes first. We will be moving forward with our diplomatic relations, which implies opening embassies, and we will be having these – likely we will be having these dialogues after we open embassy – an embassy and restore the diplomatic relations.

I suppose theoretically it could come ahead of actually opening the embassies, but we have not linked those two things together. And in part, that’s because we believe that engaging both with the Cuban people through a full embassy and with the Cuban Government through full diplomatic relations is actually a more effective way to engage on human rights than the way we have in the past.

Now, we don’t necessarily expect that in one conversation sitting down at the table we’re going to make huge changes in Cuban Government behavior, but it will be the first time that we would be able to sit down with the government directly and have an in-depth conversation about our differing perspectives, and they really are profoundly differing on human rights and what governments’ responsibilities are to their citizens for universally accepted human rights. That dialogue would be led on our side by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski, who is considerably more expert on all of these issues than I am.

And so we do not – it will not hold up the process of diplomatic restoration, but it surely will have an impact on how we are able to move ahead with that human rights dialogue and how we are able to engage with the Cuban Government on some of those issues, whether we can have an honest conversation and begin to see some – hopefully some understanding of international obligations, including ones that the Cuban Government has acceded to. We’re hopeful to get some of the international actors back into Cuba that have not been able to have visits there in recent years, whether it’s UN special rapporteurs or others. All of those things would be enormously helpful and can be the subject of those kinds of conversations.

But further how this will be structured and what kinds of subjects will be on that dialogue I think would have to be discussed once we have a date and do preparations for them and with Tom Malinowski.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for one last question. Operator, if you could do that.

OPERATOR: Certainly. That will come from Mimi Whitefield with The Miami Herald. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. I’m going to go back to that banking issue. You mentioned reciprocity as well as the Vienna Convention, and my question is simply: Can Cuba open an embassy if they do not have a bank?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean it’s a good question, Mimi, but the answer is: Sure, they can. They have in interests section without having a bank. The problem is that they’re forced to do things in cash, and that is really uncomfortable for them and frankly unsafe. And so we don’t like to see that because it’s not a very good way of doing business. So I think the answer is they can, but all of us would rather they didn’t. So we will continue to hope that we can help them try and find a bank, but this has been a great difficulty.

And there have been some ways to work parts of this. I think there’s a – Western Union at one point was doing some processing for certain consular fees. And so people have been fairly ingenious in trying to process some of the things that they have to do, but in the end you have to do things also like pay your lighting bill and stuff like that. And that’s really problematic, but it can be done in the end. It’s just not – it’s neither convenient nor safe, frankly.

MODERATOR: All right. Let me thank our speaker and thank all of our participants for your participation and your questions. We’ve run out of time, so unfortunately we’ll have to go. And appreciate your help, Operator, today. Thanks to everybody, and we’ll see you next time.