Briefing on Changes in U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

Special Briefing
Roberta S. Jacobson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
December 18, 2014

MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. So we are so thrilled to have Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson with us here today. She is going to give brief remarks and knows you all have been following the announcement of yesterday very closely, and then we’ll take your questions. Unfortunately, we have a limited amount of time, so we’ll get to as many questions as we can and then we’ll come back and talk about other topics.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay. Thanks, Jen. Good afternoon, nice to see you all. I just wanted to say a couple things and then take your questions.

I know that probably all of you have seen the announcement of yesterday and pored through the fact sheet and had conversations and listened to the phone calls. A couple things about the State Department and next steps: You’ve heard, obviously, about the restoration of diplomatic relations and the likelihood that I will be going to Cuba as part of that process. We do have migration talks scheduled for January. As you know, under the Migration Accords of 1995, we have migration talks every six months. They alternate between Havana and Washington. The next round of talks was already scheduled for Havana in January, so what we thought we would do is add to those talks a higher level – that is, the assistant secretary, myself – and use the migration talks as an opportunity to begin to talk about some of the other things on our agenda, given yesterday’s announcement. So we will use that as part of the process of restoring diplomatic relations.

That process is relatively straightforward, frankly, from a legal perspective. Countries agree, as we did yesterday, that we will begin the process of restoration of diplomatic relations. We can do that via an exchange of letters or of notes. It doesn’t require a formal sort of legal treaty or agreement. But what they do require is that both countries come to the agreement on the process, right. And obviously, it requires us also terminating the 53-year agreement that we’ve had with the Swiss Government as our protecting power, and the same for the Cubans. So that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon we would transition to becoming an embassy, and we would change the sign on our mission. We would obviously then, instead of having all of our officers be officers under the Swiss protection, they would be officers and we would have our diplomatic list of officers declared to the Cuban Government instead of through the Swiss, et cetera.

But there are other things that need to be agreed upon that have always been part of the discussion of diplomatic relations with Cuba, such as registered claims against the Cuban Government. The Cubans have a lawsuit against the United States. We do not believe those things would be resolved before diplomatic relations would be restored, but we do believe that they would be part of the conversation. So this is a process, and it will get started right away, but there’s no real timeline of knowing when each part of it will be completed, because it has to be completed by agreement of both governments as you go along. So we’ll start having that conversation as soon as possible. At the same time, obviously, as you know, State will undertake immediately – and we’ve really begun already – the process that we need to do under the law on the question of the state sponsor of terrorism listing, which has been in place since 1982.

So those are some of the things that we will begin to do right away. I did brief this morning ambassadors or charges from all of the European Union countries, all of the Western Hemisphere countries, and the – and Switzerland and the Holy See. As you can imagine, the response from all of those countries has been extremely favorable. The Secretary, I think, has talked to many other countries and many of our European counterparts and as you’ve seen around the world, I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive from the diplomatic perspective. And we look forward to working with our colleagues around the globe in a more collegial fashion on this policy in the future.

So let me stop there, and we can take questions.


MS. PSAKI: Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah, just a couple, but they’re very brief. One, what days are the migration talks supposed to be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, the migration talks had originally been scheduled for the second week in January. But I have to tell you that unfortunately, I actually have an unmovable conflict, so we’re going to try and actually shift those a little bit. So I just – I don’t have a date yet. End of January is what we’re looking at.

QUESTION: End of January, okay. So you’re --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: That’s what we’re hoping for, but to be honest, we need to work that with the Cuban Government.

QUESTION: You don’t expect your personal schedule is going to scuttle this?


QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think I have my orders, so we will have --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: We will have a trip to Cuba, regardless of what I may have to change.

QUESTION: Secondly, you don’t foresee any problem with ending the Swiss – the agreement with the Swiss, right?


QUESTION: It’s just a pretty standard thing to do? Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: No, I think they’ll be delighted too.

QUESTION: And – yeah, I’m sure they will, (inaudible). And then thirdly – and this relates to timing, and I know that this is kind of a Treasury thing, but there are a lot of people out there who want to know when these new – this new easing of the remittances and the purchases --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: The regs, new regs, right, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- the new regs will actually take effect.


QUESTION: Like if I am an American citizen in Havana or somewhere in Cuba right now, can I buy some cigars and legally bring them back into the United States as of right now --


QUESTION: -- or what. Okay. So when --


QUESTION: -- do these take effect?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So – right, this is incredibly important and I’m actually going to pull out my little Q&A folder because I want to make sure that I get the answers right on this. The answer to that question is no, for sure, because all of the announcements that the President made yesterday, none of them go into effect immediately. They all have to be implemented, whether it’s the restoration of diplomatic relations, which has to be processed, right – we have to do that with the Cuban Government in terms of implementation – or the regulation changes that will have to be made to expand purposeful travel to general licenses or other things. All of those will have to be done via regulatory changes that Treasury and other agencies are working on right now, and will be published as quickly as they can.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So they won’t go into effect until those regulations are published.

QUESTION: Until they’re published in the federal register?


QUESTION: But how – in terms of those – what, are we talking about weeks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I’m quite certain we’re talking --

QUESTION: By the end of the year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I can’t say that. I’m quite certain we’re talking about weeks; days or weeks, certainly not months. But I don’t know that I can give you a by-the-end-of-the-year date, and I’m going to have to certainly say that Treasury and Commerce, which is the other agency that has some responsibility for these, are the right places to go for those answers.

QUESTION: Okay. And then the last one, which is just that – and this was addressed yesterday, I think, at the White House, but I just want to make sure it’s still the case: You – there are numerous members of Congress who have said that they were – will try to stop or will oppose, object to funding for an embassy. Do they have the ability to stop you from converting the interests section, which they’ve been paying for since 1977, into an embassy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, let me start off with the status of the diplomatic relationship, right. The status of our diplomatic relationship in terms of going from not having diplomatic relations to having full diplomatic relations, we believe, is entirely constitutionally the President’s right and responsibility. The issue of funding, obviously, is Congress’. It is the power of the purse.

But we – I don’t know what Congress may or may not do to a budget line item, but I will tell you that I think everyone would agree that what the interests section now and the U.S. embassy in the future do in Havana is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes things like uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals in Cuba. It includes visas for thousands of Cubans every year, nonimmigrant visas for many thousands, immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year under our migration accord. No one would want to see that ended. That’s how we do that, under our interests section now and under an embassy when we have one. We provide services to Americans via our interests section, and subsequently, our embassy.

One of the ways we check on how the dissident community is doing is by having representation on the island. One of the ways we try and find out whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are not harassed is through having personnel on the island. I mean, I think the very important functions that our embassy would carry out are things that we want to continue to see. As we’ve said in other circumstances from this podium, U.S. embassies are not a gift to countries. I think a lot of countries would agree on that.

MS. PSAKI: Michael.

QUESTION: If Cuba is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, what are the specific practical consequences of that action? What economic relations are unblocked by that step? And is this the single most important step that the Administration can take without congressional approval to restore economic relations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So you’re getting off into a hypothetical that I’m not sure I know all of the implications of. But I will say that we’re not going to prejudge the outcome of the process we’ve just undertaken, so I want to start out with that. We’re going to undertake this review. We’re going to take it where the facts lead us on this. And I want to be clear about that.

At the end of that process, were Cuba to be removed from the list, there are a series of things that get taken off, some forms of sanction that get taken off. Although in Cuba’s case, I will say there are some overlapping – right – of things that may have been part of the state sponsor of terrorism list, and it may subsequently have been part of the Libertad Act or other legislation that deals with Cuba.

And to be perfectly honest, I’d have to go back and look at what is in each law and what would come off, but there are some portions of sanctions and restrictions that would be taken off if Cuba was removed from that list. So it would be significant, but I want to emphasize we’re not there yet and we have to see how this process works.

QUESTION: All I’m trying to get at --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Would it be the most significant? I don’t – I really don’t know that I would say that. I think there were a lot of very significant things announced by the President yesterday. And frankly, my own view – and it may be from this region that I live and work in, if you will – and the reaction that I’ve gotten is one of the most important things that the President could do he has done in the movement towards normalization of relations, and that is to change the whole tenor of the conversation with Cubans from consistently focusing on isolating Cuba, which as he talked about has failed and only served to isolate us, to trying to engage with Cuba towards the same ends. I think that is the most important thing he announced yesterday.


QUESTION: Can I pick up on that, on the state sponsor of terrorism? I understand there’s a time period within which you are supposed to conduct this review.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Right. The President announced that he would like the recommendation within six months.

QUESTION: Can you do it before six months? I mean, is it something you could do within a month?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: One can always turn the professor’s work in early --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: -- if you want to make a good impression on the professor.

QUESTION: And what sort of things will you be looking at in this review to make your determination?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: The law is fairly specific, so I would urge you to take a look at that. But the law is fairly specific. I’m going to just take a look here. We have to review the record of Cuba over the last six months and ensure that they have not been participants or supported acts of international terrorism over the last six months. We have to look at whether they have renounced the use of terrorism. We have to look at their ratification of international instruments against terrorism. Those are the things that we – the kinds of things that we will be looking at. I would have to look and check to see if there are other things that are in the law. I think that’s about it.

We then have to send any report that has conclusions on those subjects up to the Congress, where it has to remain for 45 days. It’s an informing of Congress, not a request for approval or denial. It’s just an informing.

QUESTION: And then --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So that’s the way that process goes.

QUESTION: -- if your recommendation is to lift them from the list, that has to be approved by the President?


MS. PSAKI: The President would send it.


MS. PSAKI: James.

QUESTION: Secretary, you just told us that this upcoming round of the migration talks will, as a vehicle for beginning the process of normalization, include discussions on outstanding legal matters, for example. We have heard from Secretary Kerry yesterday and from Jen Psaki that all along the way, the United States is going to continue to raise human rights issues with Cuba and in a robust way. Will the issue of human rights play any role in your talks next month? And going forward, will the issue of human rights be one of the things that is negotiated as part of this normalization process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: It’s a great question. Let me start by saying that, having led the migration talks in 2011, when I was the principal deputy assistant secretary, human rights are always part of the migration talks agenda, so they will be again. To the extent that we talk about in those migration talks, for example, whether they are harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section, which has been done routinely in the past. That is always discussed. When we discuss how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave, that’s a human rights issue. We often will talk about freedom to leave the country; that is different since they allowed people to leave without exit visas. There are still people who are prohibited from leaving, however – more than we would like to see.

Obviously, there will be a lot of additional issues that we will want to talk about that are not on the migration talks agenda, and so I think what we’re really talking about is a series of conversations that really aren’t included in the migration talks, but we’ll have a separate series of conversations that will be on the new initiative. So let me start out by saying just that migration talks already include some human rights issues, so we always talk about them.

In addition, I do think that some human rights issues will be talked about in this trip. I do not necessarily think that we’re talking about direct human rights conditionality in the restoration of diplomatic relations part. That is a legal process, if you will, or a diplomatic process that will be fairly mechanical. But – but some of what the President talked about yesterday in the initiative has human rights embedded in it, whether it’s ensuring that the 53 prisoners that Cuba has decided to release are actually released, and the fact that Cuban Government had previously suggested that we might want to have a bilateral human rights dialogue, which we are prepared to accept now. We would look forward to having that at a separate time. I’m hoping that my colleague who heads the human rights bureau would be involved in helping to lead that. And so we would actually want to expand the agenda on human rights in the future.

QUESTION: Just two very quick follow-ups. So you spoke of this as being a fairly mechanical process, but it would be within the latitude of the President and the Secretary of State, correct me if I’m wrong, to make conditionalities about human rights or any other issues the U.S. sees fit to include a part of this normalization process, correct?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: It would certainly be part of the conversation to ensure that our diplomats are able to play the full range of their roles, as they do in any other country, right – for example. Our diplomats in most places we want to have the full range of privileges, if you will, to carry out their functions, which includes being able to talk to lots of different people in society. These are the kinds of things that we hope to be able to talk about. I do not necessarily believe that we will put into the diplomatic restoration question additional conditionalities on substantive issues that are not related to the Vienna Convention and other responsibilities of diplomats.

QUESTION: And lastly, do you foresee that the process that the President has launched will lead to any changes in our relationship or our arrangement with Cuba vis-a-vis Guantanamo Bay? And the –


QUESTION: So the –


QUESTION: -- the leasing agreement will continue more or less as it is.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: That’s my understanding.

MS. PSAKI: This has to, unfortunately, be the last question. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Oh, that’s pressure. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: How soon could you appoint an ambassador to there? And number two: The process that was launched yesterday on lifting sanctions and so on, what kind of access does that allow Cuba, as far as international organizations to – now? Does it like – does it not give it access to, like, the IMF and the World Bank – so, funding under those?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, you’d have to – actually, that one throws me a little bit, because Cuba hasn’t been prohibited from UN bodies, to the best of my knowledge.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: The rules for the IMF and the World Bank are basically UN based. So I’m not actually sure what --

QUESTION: Okay, then can I follow up on that one? On any --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I mean, Cuba’s problems in general with international financial institutions have to do with transparency of their institutions and their banking system, et cetera, and their accounts.

QUESTION: But not the sanctions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Not necessarily our sanctions. So we’d have to talk about that --

QUESTION: So when you go – does this – when you go in January, could you maybe see yourselves going with some kind of economic leg to it, or are these strictly discussions on the diplomatic process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think it’s – I mean, I think if what you’re suggesting is some kind of economic assistance, no. We’ve said in the initiative yesterday the President made clear that one of the things we’re trying to do is support and encourage economic independence of Cubans. And so to the extent that we can support the cuentapropistas, the independent business people, to start their own business where that’s loosened up in Cuba, and entrepreneurship, we will do that. Beyond that, I don’t really see any additional economic angle to what continues to be a fairly centrally state-run and rather exhausted model in Cuba.

QUESTION: And on the ambassador?

QUESTION: On the ambassador?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Oh, on the ambassador, I mean, that is something that will have to be worked out with Cuba. I don’t think that that necessarily is one of the first things that we’ll get to. As you know, that obviously will also require advice and consent of the Senate, and we hope to get there, obviously. That’s what a full diplomatic restoration means, ambassadors in both countries. But I can’t tell you exactly when that’ll happen.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you.

QUESTION: But nominating an ambassador, you have to have an embassy first, right? You have – the Interests Section has to be converted to an embassy --


QUESTION: -- before an ambassador would be nominated.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And right – I think that’s exactly right. And we would anticipate that we will have an embassy before we would make a nomination, yes.

MS. PSAKI: All right, thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MS. PSAKI: We’ll be back in about five minutes max.