Senior State Department Official on One Year of Re-established Diplomatic Relations With Cuba

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
July 20, 2016

MODERATOR: Good morning. Thank you for joining us for this background call. We’re pleased today to have a senior State Department official who will be discussing one year of re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba. As a reminder, this call is on background. For reference purposes only, then, and not for reporting purposes, our senior State Department official today is [name and title withheld].

Again, all attribution will be on background to a senior State Department official. Our senior State Department official will have some opening remarks and then we’ll open it up for questions and answers. With that, Senior State Department Official, the floor is yours.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. Good morning and I’m happy to be with you here today. Today marks one year since we re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopened our respective embassies in Havana and Washington. Since July 20th, 2015, we have met our counterparts in the Cuban Government, some for the first time, and have engaged on a range of economic, security, cultural, and social issues. We have forged bilateral cooperation in areas that we believe will improve the lives of citizens of both countries.

President Obama traveled to Havana in March. It was a historic visit and the first by a U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. While there, President Obama extended a hand of friendship to the Cuban people, highlighted our commitment to normalizing relations, and also noted the profound differences between our governments. We remain convinced that our shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is the best course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people and the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba.

Today, I would like to reflect on those areas where we have made strides – in commerce, law enforcement, health, the environment, and access to the internet. I want to also discuss the challenges we face in the areas of human rights, property claims, and the return of fugitives.

Four Cabinet-level officials and 39 members of Congress joined the President’s trip to Cuba and since then, high-level officials from the departments of State, Justice, Commerce, Homeland Security, and the Small Business Administration have visited the island. We have welcomed the Cuban ministers of foreign trade and investment, agriculture, health, and foreign affairs to the United States.

The United States and Cuba continue to manage the bilateral relationship through the Bilateral Commission which last met in Havana on May 16th and which will likely meet again before year’s end. I’d like to highlight a few of our accomplishments over the past year.

The United States and Cuba reached a bilateral arrangement to resume scheduled air service. This will foster stronger people-to-people ties and increase travelers’ choices. The Department of Transportation has awarded non-Havana flight routes and expects to make a final decision on Havana routes later this summer with scheduled flights to begin as early as the fall.

The United States and Cuba reached an understanding to re-establish direct transportation of mail between our countries and the first flight with U.S. mail bound for Cuba took place on March 16th.

We also recently signed a public health memorandum of understanding. It is vital that we coordinate efforts to combat regional challenges that do not recognize borders such as the Zika virus, as well as share best practices for addressing other health concerns posed by cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

This week, we are meeting in Havana to engage in a counternarcotics dialogue. While there, we will sign a nonbinding counternarcotics agreement which will enable our governments to counter the threats posed by illicit narcotics trafficking. More broadly, we continue to look for ways to expand law enforcement cooperation and improve information sharing after successfully initiating direct communication via our respective Interpol offices earlier this year. U.S. and Cuban agencies also held technical exchanges on fraud identification, money laundering, human smuggling, counterterrorism, and cybercrime over the past year.

The environment offers another area where practical cooperation between our countries is generating real progress such as greater protection of fragile marine ecosystems in Cuba, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. Given our geographic proximity, environmental cooperation makes good sense. We also signed an arrangement on nautical charting that will increase maritime navigation safety and we continue to work on an agreement to coordinate oil spill response efforts.

The embargo remains in place and Congress must act in order to end it. However, the Administration has taken a number of steps with an executive authority to ease certain travel, commercial, and financial transaction restrictions applicable to Cuba. These regulatory changes encourage more engagement by U.S. telecommunications and internet companies in Cuba to support better connectivity and access to information by the Cuban people. The State Department’s Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Ambassador Danny Sepulveda, has led two delegations to Cuba to promote the internet’s role in strengthening Cuba’s global competitiveness.

Since December 2014, various U.S. companies have reached agreements with ETECSA, the Cuban telecom operator, for direct roaming, voice, and data traffic. We have also held three regulatory dialogues with the Cuban Government, the latest just last week, where we discussed our regulatory changes, how they affect Cuban businesses, and how Cuban structures and regulations governing trade relate to our regulatory changes. We have begun to identify areas where we can work together within the confines of the embargo and create greater prosperity for the people of the United States and Cuba.

U.S. and Cuban delegations also continued ongoing migration talks in Havana last week, readdressing the importance of the U.S.-Cuba accords, which provide for the safe, orderly, and legal migration of Cubans to the United States. The discussions included maritime and overland migration trends, cooperation between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Cuban physicians, as well as cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard.

We’ve also witnessed an increase in U.S. travel to Cuba. The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba reached approximately 700,000 last year, and many Americans are visiting Cuba for the first time. Carnival Cruise Line launched service to Cuba in May, which spurred the Cuban Government to change an outdated restriction governing travel by Cuban-born individuals living abroad.

Our regulatory changes now make it possible for Americans to design their own educational travel itinerary. Americans are interacting with Cubans of all walks of life, offering a more complete understanding of our respective countries. We are building bridges. This year’s highlights in educational, professional, and cultural exchanges with Cuba include the announcement of a new $1 million commitment from the Cuban-American community to the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. The fund will be used to boost Cuban academic participation in the President’s signature education initiative, 100,000 Strong in the Americas. While in Havana in March, the President also shared the news that the distinguished Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship and Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship programs are now offered for Cuba. In partnership with the Cuban Government, we’re also offering English-language training for Cuban academics teaching English.

Similar to the United States, Cuba’s culture is rich and diverse and will be featured at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal traveled to Havana last month as the U.S. Department of State’s sports envoy, and Misty Copeland will travel in November as an envoy to conduct master classes with a special focus on female youth and social inclusion. The numbers of new and stronger exchange programs are on the rise. Many of these exchanges are created and launched by private citizens, universities and organizations, and we fully support these endeavors.

Speaking of growth, the number of Cubans in the private sector is rising, and such Cubans now represent 25 percent of the workforce. Our regulatory changes have made it easier for the U.S. business community to engage with their Cuban counterparts to provide resources and share information to help the Cuban private sector continue to grow.

Undoubtedly, Cuba faces economic challenges in the months ahead. The economic turmoil in Venezuela has worsened the outlook for economic growth in Cuba for the rest of the year. We are hearing about power failures and energy rationing, and the Cuban Government has recently reshuffled leadership in its economic ministry. At the same time, Cubans want a better life, and this will require fundamental economic reform. We continue to urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, engage in trade, and access information online.

On the issue of human rights, our commitment to democratic reform and fundamental freedom in Cuba is unwavering. Respect for universal human rights is one of our enduring national interests and a top policy priority toward Cuba. We are working with the Cuban Government to schedule a human rights dialogue in Havana. Human rights will continue to be one of the more challenging issues we discuss. We continue to follow President Obama’s lead in advocating for human rights in Cuba, including freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. We will continue to demonstrate our solidarity with and support for democracy activists. We will also continue to publicly criticize the Cuban Government for violations of human rights.

In conclusion, normalization is a long-term process. Human rights, property claims, and the return of fugitives from U.S. justice are complex and thorny issues, but we’re making slow and steady progress. In spite of our differences with the Cuban Government, our engagement policy is working. We have made significant progress since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations a year ago. We’re moving in the right direction in our bilateral relationship with the Cuban Government and in our relationship with the Cuban people, and we have the support of the majority of the American public.

I’d be happy to answer any questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you for that introduction. Operator, we’re now ready for questions. If you can repeat the instructions for how to ask a question, and then we’ll go to the first one.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Our first question comes from Ernesto Londono with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. You mentioned that there’s been 700,000 Americans who have visited Cuba this year. I’m wondering to what extent, if any, the government is still enforcing the congressional travel ban for tourism purposes. Has anybody been fined for traveling to Cuba in the last few months, in the last year or so?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As you know, I think, Ernesto – as you know, our modification does not permit tourism purposes on the embargo. Our modification of the regulations allows for self-certification of educational itineraries. I’m not aware of anybody who’s been fined, but I would suggest that you follow up that with OFAC, who is tasked with enforcing compliance with the embargo.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Next question, Operator.

OPERATOR: Question is from Matt Spetalnick with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. Over the course of the past year, certainly there has been some easing of restrictions on, as you mentioned, travel, commercial ties, and the like, something short of lifting the embargo. I wondered, can we expect any further easing of restrictions between now and the end of the President’s term?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Matt, as President Obama stated in his visit to Havana in March, we’re close to approaching the end of what can be done based on executive authority. However, we’re constantly looking at the regulations to see where we still may make adjustments or modifications that will further particularly our people-to-people ties with Cuba.

MODERATOR: Okay. Operator, next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Alan Gomez with USA Today. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. One of the regulatory changes you mentioned was the possibility of American businesses to work directly with these private entrepreneurs down in Cuba. But we haven’t really seen anything on the Cuban side to allow for that relationship to develop – they can’t import things directly from American businesses, they can’t work for them directly. Have you guys seen any changes on that front from the Cubans, and are you at all worried that the Cubans won’t allow that portion of the opening of relations to flourish?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. I mean, thank you for that question. Obviously, we can take actions under executive authority to modify the embargo and allow the possibility for U.S. businesses to engage in certain activities in Cuba, but to a large extent, the willingness of U.S. companies to operate in Cuba will depend on actions of the Cuban Government. What the Cuban Government does to facilitate trade investment to make the country more attractive to private sector business activity is perhaps in many ways even more important.

We’ve certainly had discussions about the regulatory issues. I mentioned the regulatory commission that has met three times where we have discussed not just U.S. laws and regulations which govern economic activity with Cuba, but certainly also on the Cuban side regulations which they have which adversely impact businesses. I would say it’s an ongoing dialogue. Certainly the issue of employment by private companies, the ability to maybe hire Cubans directly and not have to go through government agencies – that’s an issue that has been raised. But we’re aware that in Cuba there is a debate underway about the extent of further economic reform. So we certainly are discussing these, but in the end it will be the Cuban Government that takes the decisions on what measures to follow and the timing of their implementation.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press *1 at this time. Our next question is from Juan Vasquez from Miami Herald. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. My question has to do with the property rights issue. I wonder if you could give us any details there. And two, whether Cuba still has outstanding property rights issues with any other countries, and is there a target number we’re looking for, like settling on 20 cents on the dollar, 10 cents on the dollar, whatever? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Juan, thank you for that question. As I mentioned, property claims is one of our top priorities. We had a initial – or first-round meeting with the Cubans on this issue last December in Havana. We will have a second round of talks here in Washington at the end of this month. We certainly have not laid out any kind of – the details which you’ve described. That will emerge from the negotiations, but we’re committed to pursuing all of the registered claims, as well as other claims that U.S. citizens have against Cuba.

So it’s a process. We had a good round last December. We hope to make further progress this month in moving forward on the issue.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Lucia Leal with EFE. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. You said you’re trying to schedule a human rights dialogue in Havana. I was wondering, would that be led by Secretary Kerry or Assistant Secretary Malinowski?

And secondly, one of your arguments on the re-establishment of relations has been that Latin American countries would be more likely to speak out about human rights in Cuba. Would you say that that goal has been met? Because we haven’t heard much of that publicly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. I mean, as you know, the commitment to hold a human rights dialogue emerged from President Obama’s visit last March, and both sides are committed to having that in Havana. We’re under discussions right now trying to set the dates and the agenda for that. Certain it’ll take place before the end of the year. Normally, in our human rights dialogues, they are led by Assistant Secretary Malinowski. The Secretary certainly expressed his interest and will be involved on the human rights issue.

In the broader sense, we certainly remain committed to raising human rights in all of our interactions with Cuban Government officials. We make public comments, we make criticism of human rights abuses on the island, and are committed to engaging our partners in the region on the human rights issues in Cuba, urging them to also engage and speak out.

So that’s going to be an ongoing activity, and we will – we will continue to raise this and discuss it with our partners in the region.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from David Adams with Univision. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Good morning. The – since the restoration of diplomatic relations, we’ve seen no slowdown in the number of Cubans trying to leave the island and come to the United States; if anything, there’s been an uptick. And there are increasing numbers of voices asking why doesn’t the U.S. revisit the Cuban Adjustment Act. It’s one of Cuba’s most vocal complaints about the current state of policy and yet it doesn’t seem to be something that anyone is discussing. And I’m just curious, why the delay in addressing this issue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, certainly migration is an issue which we discuss with the Cuban Government. I was in Havana last week for our migration talks, where we discussed our commitment to maintaining safe, orderly, and legal migration. I talked with the Cubans both about the maritime aspects of migration as well as some of the overland through Central America and through Mexico. But at this time, “wet foot, dry foot” remains our policy.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Mimi Whitefield with Miami Herald. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: This is a follow-up on the past question. What we’ve seen in south Florida is certainly an increase in migrants arriving by sea. In the past year we’ve had tens of thousands of Cubans who have taken the overland route and arrived, eventually in south Florida, and it’s causing problems with other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. What I’d like to know is, what concrete steps are being taken to alleviate the situation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, certainly, we’ve been talking about the issue with countries both in South America and Central America, as well as with the Cuban Government itself. As I mentioned, last week we were talking about trends in both maritime and overland migration. I think one of the – the impact of some of the discussions that have been held was many of the Cuban migrants were moving through Ecuador, where there is not a visa requirement for Cubans. A visa requirement has been imposed by the Ecuadoran Government, which has reduced the flow to some extent there. In fact, the Ecuadoran Government deported I think it was over 200 Cubans back to Cuba, who clearly were migrants.

In terms of the Central Americans, we’re aware of the air bridge that they set up with Mexico earlier this year. We thought that was useful to alleviate temporary humanitarian issues at the time, but we don’t see that as a viable medium and long-term approach. We may need to engage with both the Central Americans and the Mexicans in terms of promoting the idea of safe, orderly, legal migration and restricting or repatriating irregular migrants.

In terms of the maritime issue, we certainly discussed with the Cuban Government the real dangers and risk for people attempting to travel from Cuba to the United States on the open seas. There’s a good relationship between the U.S. Coast Guard and the – their Cuban counterparts, and we have a repatriation program there which has worked and been successful over the last years. And so we’ll continue that cooperation, that dialogue with the Cubans moving forward.

MODERATOR: Operator, I think we have time for just a couple more questions. Can we get the next question please?

OPERATOR: Certainly. Serena Marshall with ABC News.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this call. I wanted to – I was wondering if you could comment or provide a little more context on internet in Cuba. As of the President’s visit, it still remains painfully slow, and while they have set up more hotspots around the island, in many cases it’s also still prohibitively expensive for Cubans. So while they are working on some deals with companies, are they moving fast enough to set up internet around the island in what President Obama was hoping would help expose Cubans to more democratic ideas and processes?

And then, also, I was wondering if you could comment on the fugitives still in Cuba and what is being done to try and return some of those like Joanne Chesimard, who Fidel himself has pardoned and allowed to stay on the island, and if there’s getting any headway with those.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, in terms of the connectivity, obviously that’s something that we would like to see move more quickly. We’ve taken action on our part to facilitate potential business with U.S. telecom and internet companies. You can see that there’s a real demand for this kind of connectivity among the Cuban people – hotspots tend to be overwhelmed; hotels that have a WiFi service, there’s many Cubans outside who are trying – taking advantage of that to be able to communicate. Certainly from our perspective, we would like to see the Cuban Government move more quickly to meet the demands of the people for this greater access and greater connectivity, but in the end, that is going to depend on actions taken by the Cuban Government. They have made commitments that they say will broaden access and reduce costs, and I think it’s very important for them in responding to the demands of their own people that they follow through on that.

In terms of the fugitives, it’s an issue of great concern to us. We’ve raised it repeatedly with the Cuban Government. When I was in Havana in May for a law enforcement dialogue, we raised this very forcefully in the discussions. And so we remain in a process with the Cuban Government discussing the fugitive issue, and we hope that that will produce results. Obviously, it’s a difficult issue for the Cubans. It’s going to take some time, but we are talking about these issues for the first time since the normalization of our policy started. Prior to that, we really had no communications with the Cubans on this issue. So our ability to engage the Cubans on this is a product of our policy change.

MODERATOR: Operator, last question please.

OPERATOR: Our last question is from Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Yeah, thanks for doing this. My question is – President Obama said that he wants this normalization with Cuba basically to be sort of safeguarded and tamper proof in a way by the time he leaves office. And I’m wondering to what extent you see that – to what extent over this year has this policy been institutionalized, or could we see a year from now that a less-enthusiastic administration is sort of letting things slide backwards?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s an excellent question. From our perspective, we believe that the benefits that we’ve achieved in the journey of institutionalization is quite remarkable. I started working on the Cuba issues in March and was truly amazed by the depth and breadth of issues that we were engaging on the Cubans – whether it was security issues, economic issues, cultural, social exchange, travel, law enforcement. In a whole variety of areas, we’ve actually institutionalized either regular talks followed up with cooperation and discussion and made real progress in terms of agreements such as the MOU on public health, re-establishing direct transportation of mail, and the hope for or soon-to-be-implemented return of – resumption of scheduled air service. So all of these steps have helped institutionalize the process, and it brought real benefits.

We mentioned about the 700,000 Americans who have traveled to Cuba. Certainly, that’s a benefit for those Americans who have visited the island. And certainly it has been advancing our overall policy which aims at – through these – the travel, exposing Cubans in more detail greater to the United States, promoting this connectivity of Cubans with the world at large, and also providing funding through money that’s spent or through remittances to support the development, emergence of the Cuban private sector, all of which feed into the overall objective of empowering Cuban – individual Cubans, giving them greater autonomy from the state, and putting them in a position where they’re better equipped to express their demands on the Cuban state, and what they would like to do to lead better lives. And so I think the benefits of that policy are becoming clearer over the year.

And so I would never speculate on what a next administration may do, but I think to the extent that this has yielded these positive results for the United States, for the Cuban people, it would be difficult to go backwards.

MODERATOR: Well, thank you very much to our Senior State Department Official today and all of you for joining us for the call. For those of you who joined us later, a reminder that this call was on background with all attribution to a Senior State Department Official.

Operator, that concludes today’s call. Have a great day.