Background Briefing on Cuba

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
State Department Official
Via Teleconference
July 17, 2015


MODERATOR: Thanks so much, [Operator], and thanks to all of you for joining us on the call today. Our speaker today is [State Department Official]. For this call, [State Department Official] can be referred to as a State Department Official. He’s briefing today on background on Cuba, previewing the events for Monday, July 20th.

As you know, on Monday in accordance with President Obama’s announcement on July 1st, the U.S. and Cuba will re-establish diplomatic relations. This call is based on several requests and will deal with questions on the logistics of this re-establishment and Monday’s events. Please note we will not – not – address broader questions on U.S. policy towards Cuba on this call.

And while the Secretary of State will travel to Cuba later this summer to celebrate the re-opening of U.S. Embassy Havana and raise the U.S. flag, details regarding the re-opening ceremony will be provided in the coming weeks. Again, we won’t discuss any high-level travel on this call.

I’d also like to note we have had questions on the flag installation at the State Department. A few notes on this: First, this is a routine installation with no public or media component. Currently, we do not have clarity on the timing but it will be outside of business hours.

Finally, we’d like to keep questions relatively brief today. As you can imagine, our speaker has a lot to do before Monday, so our goal is to wrap this up in about 25 minutes.

Finally, today’s call is on background, so with that, I will turn it over to our State Department official.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you [Moderator], and thanks, everybody, for joining us. We do want to answer your questions. It is an incredibly busy time, but we do want to make sure that you do get some of the facts. And so I’ve got a couple of remarks just to explain how we see everything going down on Monday, and then we can open it up for questions.

So as [Moderator] mentioned, this is a direct result of the President’s announcement on July 1st, and we indicated at that time July 20 would be the date that diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba would be re-established. We also announced that this would be the day that we would officially re-open the embassies. So to be clear, legally on July 20th, both interest sections will become embassies.

Now soon-to-be U.S. Embassy Havana will have its – we’ll have more information about that, about when we memorialize that later this summer, but it will officially be an embassy come Monday. And the embassy does plan to put out a short, factual statement to that effect down in Havana.

Up here in Washington, at 10:30, the Cuban Embassy will hold their ceremonial re-opening, and there is very limited attendance by the U.S. Government there. We will have a delegation. We do not have a speaking role. The Cubans are handling their own press, and any questions about their ceremony we would refer to them.

Later at 1 o’clock, Secretary Kerry has invited his counterpart, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, to come to the State Department for an historic meeting. They will meet at 1 o’clock. Afterward at 1:40, they will have a press conference – a joint press conference, and it is there that we’re going to – is that right? So it is there that really there will be sort of the first historic joint press conference between the Secretary of State and the Cuban Foreign Minister.

Really after that event, the minister departs, and that will finish the U.S. involvement for the day. He goes on and does other things that you can ask them about. And then with regard to when our embassy will be ceremonially re-opened in Havana, we’re going to announce those later this summer, or as [Moderator] said, in the coming weeks.

So thank you very much. That’s just sort of our opening comments and pretty much the scope of what we can brief today. But I’m happy to answer any questions about those areas.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * then 1. Our first question is going to come from the line of Matt Spetalnick with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thanks very much. Kirby said today at his briefing that the talks between Kerry and Rodriguez would be substantive, and he ticked off a number of issues that might be involved. I would like you – on the human rights issue, can you give any guidance on whether Kerry will push for the release of more Cuban political prisoners, and will there be any kind of – what about the Cuban demand for the return of Guantanamo? Is the Secretary willing to discuss that?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I’m not going to try to talk about the – I don’t really want to talk about the conversation that the two ministers will have. I mean clearly as the spokesperson said, they’re going to talk about bilateral issues. He gave a list. Those will be the items that they go through. And what we’re looking at are issues that we’ve already agreed that we can – that we have an agenda that we can talk about. And so on human rights, we won’t get into specifics, but we’ve had a dialogue with them already and we’ve had a pretty robust conversation with them, and we expect that to be continued through the discussion by the ministers.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Karen DeYoung with Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. This is about the ceremonies. [Moderator] said that Kerry would go down there to raise the flag at the new U.S. embassy. Does that mean that the flag will not be raised when the embassy opens until Kerry gets there?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right, Karen, that’s the – that is the plan right now. The Secretary will be there to officiate for these very important events of raising the flag and unveiling the signage for the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He does – his presence there is ceremonial. It’s important, it’s historic, but legally the embassy will be functioning on Monday, July 20th. There is not a legal requirement to fly a flag, and we wanted the Secretary to be there to oversee these important events.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Juan Lopez with CNN Espanol. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. So starting Monday, what changes, what is different at the now-U.S. Embassy in Havana? Can anyone go? Is it like other embassies in the world where you have to have a previous appointment? What is going to happen with U.S. diplomats? Do – starting Monday, are they free to roam the country as they haven’t been before? Can you be more specific on the logistics please?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Yes, on Monday they will – all of the employees of the – the American employees of the interest section will be re-accredited as employees of the embassy. So it is an upgrade in status for the – for all the U.S. employees there. The chief of mission will be upgraded to charge d’affaires, and they will be then entered as a member of the diplomatic corps in Havana, and that will mean that they are invited to diplomatic functions just like any other country. That has not been the case previously. And yes, there are conditions that we have talked about previously, about – when we made the agreement to open the embassies. And there will be some – those conditions will all be active and effective on July 20th and will begin to function under those new conditions. Those new conditions do include greater freedom for U.S. diplomats to travel throughout Cuba.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I’ve got two. One is: Do you have any sort of information on when the last Cuban official to visit Washington was and how high-ranking they were? And then two: Is there any sort of timeline about renovations at the soon-to-be embassy? And I know it has to be upgraded. Do you have anything you can tell us about when those are going to begin? Thanks.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Cuban foreign minister has visited New York under the context of the – of UN activities. He has not visited Washington before. And this particular foreign minister has never been to Washington. As far as the – I – actually I don’t have the information as to who was the most senior Cuban to visit before, because there are certain international organizations that are in Washington and may have invited a minister from time to time, so I don’t think that we would keep track of exactly who has been here before.

And with regard to renovations, I really don’t have a – any more information to add other than we don’t have any immediate plans for a major renovation of that facility.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. When is the last time that a meeting of this level has happened? When is the last foreign minister from Cuba – when did he ever come to the State Department?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, that would be a good question for the historian. It has not happened in decades, but we don’t have the exact date. I’m sorry that we – I regret that we don’t have that. As I said, these two gentlemen have met on various occasions and they have met in Panama and they’ve met in New York, but this is historic in that it has been several decades since a Cuban foreign minister has visited Washington or the State Department.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Julie Davis with New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, hi. Can you say who – which U.S. officials will be attending the opening of the Cuban embassy here on Monday? And then separately, when Secretary Kerry meets with the Cuban Foreign Minister, will discussing the unresolved property claims be on their agenda? And how quickly does the Secretary hope to make progress on that issue?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. The delegation is led by Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, who was the Secretary’s negotiator with the Cubans for – throughout this process. There is a – as I said, it’s a small group. I don’t want – I won’t give all the names here, but they are essentially assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries, both from State Department and other government agencies that have had activities and other negotiations with the Cubans throughout this process. So they are all people that the Cubans are familiar with and reflect an attitude of wanting to work our bilateral agenda in a very robust manner.

I know that the spokesperson mentioned claims as one of the agenda items that they would discuss. It is a priority among many, but we have said this on several occasions that the resolution of these claims is a priority for the State Department and for the U.S. Government. And I don’t have any other information about how that is going to be resolved.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. When Secretary Kerry goes on this trip in presumably August, do you expect that he will do more than the ceremonial flag-raising? Would he also go over to MINREX or do a reciprocal visit? And how long do you expect the Cuban visitors are going to be in Washington?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you for the question. We are still working on the details of that trip, which we haven’t yet announced. Obviously, the Cubans approach this with a – with reciprocity in how they’ve organized their meeting here, and so I’ll just leave it at that, that most things that we do with the Cuban Government are reciprocal in nature. And so July 20 is an important ceremonial activity for us as we look to future travel by the Secretary.

On the – was there another question there? Did I miss one? Did I miss another part of that question?

OPERATOR: One moment, I’ll open that line up.

QUESTION: Bruno’s schedule.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What? Oh, Bruno’s schedule. Sorry, I’ve got it now. The – from what we know of the foreign minister’s schedule, he will arrive on Sunday and then he will depart on Tuesday early. So it – most of his schedule revolves around the ceremony at the Cuban embassy.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Carrie Kahn with NPR. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Quickly, will the charge d’affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, be in Havana, and will he do anything in Havana on Monday? Did you get the new employees that you asked for and will they be there start this – starting next week? And you said they get an upgrade of employees that are at the Interests Section. Do they also get a pay upgrade?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The – actually, Jeff DeLaurentis will be – and I should have mentioned that earlier – he will be in the delegation that is here in Washington, and that’s a fairly standard practice and especially for a historic meeting that our representative in the embassy would come back for that meeting. So he will be here in Washington. And so our deputy chief of mission in Havana will actually on that day be in charge of the post. And again, there is no other activity other than we’re going to have a statement put out by the embassy announcing that they have indeed elevated status to an embassy that morning.

There also will be a technical exchange of notes because the Government of Switzerland has been providing us protecting power for many years, and that will now be – that agreement between the U.S. and Switzerland, and another agreement between Cuba and Switzerland, will be terminated as a result of the upgrade.

As for the employees, there may be some confusion in that the discussion of personnel and staffing that we had with the Cubans referred specifically to American employees, and that’s a personnel issue that we’ll work out in the months to come. So on that day, we would not get new employees. In fact, the employees at the Cuban Interests Section will be the same employees and they – as I understand it, they’re excited about becoming (inaudible) of the U.S. embassy.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Serena Marshall with ABC News. Please go ahead. Ms. Marshall, possibly your mute button is on.

QUESTION: Sorry about that, my mute button was on. I would just like to confirm about the flag raising in Havana, that not only will there not be a ceremonial flag raising, there will not be any American flag outside of the U.S. Interests Section, soon-to-be embassy, on Monday. And secondly, on the State Department raising the flag outside, if we do want to cover that as a historic moment to have the Cuban flag outside of the State Department, will you give any more guidance on what time that will occur or if there will be able to be any video of that?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll do the first question and ask [Moderator] about the second. Yeah, to confirm, there – so there will be no flag flying at the U.S. embassy in Havana until the Secretary of State comes down to officiate that ceremony. It is not a legal requirement that they fly the flag, and we are going to function as an embassy. They will do everything just like an embassy, but they will not have the additional feature of flying a flag. With regard to the C Street, it’s not a flag outside the State Department. It’s inside the State Department in our lobby, and [Moderator] was going to – I think [Moderator] addressed that at the top. I don’t know if you want to jump in here, [Moderator].

MODERATOR: No, you are actually great on that. It is in the C Street lobby. That will be up outside of business hours, but that will be one of all of the flags that are displayed in the C Street lobby of the nations with whom we maintain diplomatic relations.

OPERATOR: And it looks like we have time for one more question. That comes from the line of Pam Dockins with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. First – two questions, actually. First of all, considering the U.S. trade embargo remains in place and travel to Cuba is restricted under the 12 categories, what tangible changes will result from the opening of the embassies on Monday for the average American who’s interested in Cuba, and also for the average Cuban who’s interested in America? What will be the difference for them, or will the openings be more symbolic?

Oh, and my second question – just because I picked up about a minute late, could you clarify the attribution? Is it senior Administration official or senior State Department official?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. This is a symbolic step, but it is a very important step in the next stage of our relations with Cuba. The President has been very clear there are many other changes that need to take place, and he has called on Congress to end the embargo. As far as tangible changes that people will see, I will just say that as a result of the President’s decision, more Americans are able to travel to Cuba and they will be supported by a U.S. embassy rather than a U.S. interests section, and that Cubans, as part of the negotiations, will see more accessibility to our facility down there. They will not have the – to – they will not face as many security officials as before due to the conditions that the embassy will operate under, and they will be able to more easily access American officials should they want to talk to them.

With regard to the attribution, I’ll leave that for [Moderator].

MODERATOR: Thanks so much. And just as a reminder, it is a State Department official, and the attribution – this call is on background, State Department official.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for joining us. I’m sorry that the call was so brief. We will push out products on Monday, including transcripts; photos will be posted to the State Department properties. It’s a significant day. I’d like to thank our briefer for joining us, as well as all of you. Have a good weekend.