Interview With Elise Labott of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Havana, Cuba
August 14, 2015

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you so much for joining us. Clearly an historic day here in Cuba. But the Cubans have said numerous times that this relationship will not fully reach its potential until the embargo is lifted, and they’ve also said that there’s more they’d like to see the President do. I mean, I know you say this is irreversible, but they are concerned that there will be rollbacks. So what specific steps is President Obama willing to take in his time in office to reinforce this and make sure it’s not reversible? Because we know with a year and change left, that that embargo’s not going to get lifted.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, actually, we don’t know what’s going to happen totally. I mean, maybe it won’t be immediately in that period of time, but a lot of good things can happen that move you in that direction.

QUESTION: What specifically?

SECRETARY KERRY: And remember – remember that there was a lot of controversy and questioning about what we should do with respect to Vietnam. President George Herbert Walker Bush lifted that embargo. That was the first step, in fact, moving towards normalization – then came the normalization.

Here it’s been different. It’s a sort of different approach. But I think if we cooperate effectively on the areas we laid out today in civil aviation, on communications, telecommunications and connectivity, on maritime and law enforcement issues, on various environment issues, on health – and I mean, there are a number of sectors here where we can actually begin to build trust and build progress. And I don’t know; I think that can change things.

I think you’re also going to see a growing business constituency that begins to believe that there are opportunities for a mutual benefit in helping entrepreneurs here, but in those entrepreneurs then engaging and creating jobs and bringing products back to America.

So I don’t think anybody can make a judgment today, Elise. I think this is all new to everybody. Let’s see how the working group, the steering committee that’s been put together, works. Let’s see what specific steps can be taken. And that’ll be what really defines the future.

QUESTION: You and the President argue that this increased engagement will help human rights. But eight months in, detentions have actually increased; lack of freedoms still for Cubans here on the island. And some dissidents are saying, “Look, it is business as usual.”

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t think you can judge – I mean, we only just finished the negotiation on diplomatic relations a month and a half ago, two months ago. We are just literally months into this after 54 years --

QUESTION: Are they testing you?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- of not being engaged. No, I don’t think so. I think what’s happened is that there is a certain amount of habit, and it’s playing out. And that’s what has to change. And we will confront those situations. For instance, when some people were detained for a brief period of time last week, the spokesperson for the State Department, Admiral Kirby, condemned it from the podium publicly the next day. We’re very outspoken and we will remain very clear and outspoken on these issues. Now, we had a very direct conversation today about human rights. They’re ready to engage on these issues, and let’s see what progress can be made.

QUESTION: Okay. But eight months in, we haven’t seen much change in --


QUESTION: Let me ask you: If eight months isn’t long enough, how long is it until you will have a measurable amount of success and you can grade whether this policy is working?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the announcement was made eight months ago that we were going to move towards this policy. But we had to negotiate for many of those months on the actual process itself. I don’t think we’re – we’re not even yet – and today we raised flags and we’ve opened embassies. You got to give this a moment for us to be able to have our steering committee sit down, confront these issues, come up with a roadmap that makes sense. And we will confront if they are – if they challenge their own citizens on the issue of human rights, you will hear us loudly and clearly taking them on with respect to that.

QUESTION: You’ve said you respect your friend and former colleague Chuck Schumer for disapproving of the policy. But this isn’t Prime Minister Netanyahu here. This is the future leader, possibly, of your party in the Senate actively lobbying against an important policy initiative of the President. It seems like a pretty big betrayal.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, I don’t look at it that way at all. I just don’t. Chuck Schumer, I know him well. He’s a friend of mine. We’ve worked together very closely. He’s a person of conscience. He made a hard decision based on his view, and I don’t think he is lobbying. I think he’s made his decision --

QUESTION: You spent a lot of effort, though, trying to explain the deal to him – a lot of dinners, a lot of meetings. Was that for naught?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re explaining it to lots of people. I mean, remember, there are a lot of people who decided to be against this agreement before they even had an explanation of the deal. And so I’m not – look. One person has announced on the Democratic side against it. A lot more people have announced for it. General Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor to Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush and to many other people as candidates and otherwise, came out for it. John Warner, former United States senator, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a Republican, came out for it. So I’m – people have a right to make up their minds and make their own decision, and I think every senator is going to really look at this carefully.

QUESTION: Reports of chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria and Iraq – game-changer? What can you do?

SECRETARY KERRY: We have alleged – we have alleged – I have personally alleged the possibility of chlorine being used as chemical weapons. But this is a separate one.

QUESTION: We’re talking about maybe mustard gas now. That’s right.

SECRETARY KERRY: This is – I’ve said. But I’m saying we are not surprised by the possibility – possibility – that something has been used by somebody, and we’ve been investigating it very, very closely. In fact, we’ve worked on a United Nations resolution with the Russians and others in order to focus on a mechanism to get to the bottom of this in Syria. But as I sit here today, we do not have confirmation – number one, that it was mustard; number two, that somebody in fact used it. We have stories of it.

QUESTION: What can you do if it was?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re focused. That’s why we’ve put this resolution into the United Nations to refocus on what may have been missed or what may have been converted. Remember, the deal – the arrangement to get all the chemical weapons out of Syria were the declared chemicals. Chlorine did not count as a required declaration, because chlorine alone is not prohibited. When it’s mixed with something else, then it becomes a chemical weapon, and that appears to be what has happened.

So we are now focused on that, and we are focused on whether or not some element, some notion – component may have been missed in the declaration and in the process of removal. The vast, vast majority – 90-whatever percent – of the chemical weapons of Syria that were declared have been removed. But something may have been missed. We don’t have a definitive answer to that. We are obviously very concerned and going after it.

QUESTION: Just a last question, Secretary Kerry. It seems as if the landscape is changing in Syria. You’ve been talking a lot with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and it seems that there might be an opportunity for a new political solution in Syria. Are you getting indications from Foreign Minister Lavrov that you might be able to get something going?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think “might be” – I think you used the word “might” several times, and I would heartily endorse that. I embrace the word “might” be able to happen.

QUESTION: But there is some optimism here?

SECRETARY KERRY: There’s a sense of an opening possibility only. And we’re exploring whether or not we can find a series of steps that we agree on. Right now, the Saudis, the Russians, and we have sat together and tried to define whether we can find agreement on who the opposition is, and we all agree that it’s representative of a particular vision for Syria that’s articulated and clear that presents us with a chance to be able to negotiate under the original Geneva notion of a transition government. Clearly, everybody is seized of this issue right now because of the threat of ISIS, Daesh, that is growing, and the disorder and catastrophe that Syria has become. So we’re all trying to push hopefully in a direction that could see a unity of effort against ISIS --

QUESTION: Including the Iranians?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, the Iranians yet are not – we have not broached them on this. They’re not yet part of that. Obviously, down the road at some point Iran could play a role, but we don’t know yet whether they’re willing to or ready to and capable of it.

QUESTION: Well, Secretary Kerry, it’s a short trip here in Havana. We hope to come back with you and stay a little bit longer.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hope so. We’re going to come back over these next months because we need to negotiate this process forward, as we’ve just described. And so I look forward to coming back.

QUESTION: Okay. We’ll be with you.


QUESTION: Thank you.