Interview With Maria Celeste Arraras of Telemundo

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Hotel Nacional
Havana, Cuba
March 22, 2016

QUESTION: Good morning.

SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, these attacks in Brussels are sending shockwaves across the world. What can you tell Americans this morning? Are we safe?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re constantly vigilant. We work as hard as humanly possible to make everybody safe. Regrettably, if one person decides they want to kill themselves and they want to blow themselves up around other people, regrettably, we live in a world where somebody can do that somewhere. But there’s an unbelievable amount of effort going into making people safe – airport travel, tracking foreign fighters, checking on people’s background, amazing security at various places. This event – I just spoke with the foreign minister of Belgium, and he reminded me that this event took place not inside the airport beyond the security, but before the security. So this is an area which one calls a soft target.

QUESTION: So unchartered territory for terrorist attacks, then?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not completely unchartered in the sense that people know that people are going to walk into an airport and potentially present a danger. But there are limits to exactly how exhaustive those perimeters can become. So people need to be vigilant, everybody needs to take precautions. I think it underscores to everyone the importance of people uniting in order to defeat all of these extremist terrorist organizations that engage in violence.

QUESTION: Talking about being united, the president of France called just a while ago for a global response. How is the United States going to respond to this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the United States is already engaged in a global response. We are leading an international coalition of 66 nations. We began that last year when Daesh/ISIL first launched its assault on Iraq and Syria, and we have been pushing them back ever since. We’ve made significant progress. But clearly this underscores the imperative to try to find ways to move even faster.

QUESTION: So the question is: Has anything changed from yesterday to today in terms of the U.S. involvement?

SECRETARY KERRY: The U.S. involvement has been increasing literally on a daily basis for months now. President Obama just had a National Security Council meeting on the subject of what our next steps are to increase our efforts. So I think we’re moving as rapidly as possible. We are trying to get other countries to commit more to the fight. We’ve flown more than 10,000 airstrikes. We have troops on the ground in Syria. We have troops on the ground in Iraq. So the United States will take a second seat to nobody in the efforts by which we have stepped up here. But we need to unite more countries in a more concerted effort in order to destroy the extremist terrorist groups, particularly Daesh and Nusrah, as fast as possible.

QUESTION: Going into the Cuba subject, Raul Castro promised yesterday that he would liberate political prisoners if provided with a list. And several lists have come up since then. Do you believe that he is going to comply?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to make prejudgments. That’s not my job. What I’m going to do is help provide a list and continue to fight for the release of people who shouldn’t be imprisoned in the first place. And we will always do that. That is the United States’ position. We have seen five people released last week that we worked very hard to make sure were released. And I hope President Castro will take a look at the list and release people as he said he would.

QUESTION: Because the undertone of his response yesterday was that there were no political prisoners. The United States does believe that there are political prisoners, correct?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, we do. There are people that we believe have been arrested or detained because they have attempted to demonstrate or sought to express their political views. I’ll give you an example. If somebody hangs a sign outside that expresses their point of view – that’s all it is, is a written sentence – that person should not be imprisoned, but they have been. And so I think that those are the kinds of things where there needs to be an opening up of a little bit of political space.

QUESTION: So in addition to providing that list, the Obama Administration is going to do what in terms of pursuing the liberation of those prisoners?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re going to continue – we have agreed that there will be a human rights dialogue, and we have that dialogue. Yesterday, we had a certain amount of discussion about it in preparation for having the formal dialogue that will take place. And we will continue, as we always have, to raise individual cases and to continue to press for a broad array of rights that we think strengthen a country, not weaken it, and that are in keeping with the spirit of the universal rights that are accepted by almost every single country in this hemisphere.

QUESTION: Moving on to Colombia, the United States has always had the policy that it doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, yet you met yesterday with the top leaders of FARC, which is considered one of the deadliest narco-terrorism organizations in the world, and the State Department still considers it as a terrorist organization. Has there been a change in policy?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. The negotiations are between the Government of Colombia and FARC. It is the longest-running conflict on the face of the planet. They have – both the country, Colombia, and the individual entity, FARC – come together now for over four years. They are working to try to find a way to make peace. This is a peace that will include a justice mechanism for people to serve some sort of service to the country or pay a penalty of some kind and be part of a justice process that will create accountability for what has happened.

So I think that’s – we – President Obama and I, and the country, we believe this is a very important process for the future of Colombia, for the region. And there are other wars that have ended in the past in this region with negotiations between the protagonists. So we are supportive of a negotiated peace that has accountability and that can provide peace and stability to Colombia. And both sides deserve credit for sitting at the table to try to work that out.

QUESTION: But with all due respect, do you understand that there’s a big difference between being a vehicle to help the negotiations and – there’s a difference between that and sitting at the table with the leaders of the terrorist organization? Doesn’t that open the door for, in the future, sitting at tables with, let’s say, if the circumstances would merit it, with ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, because what I – no, there’s no negotiations with ISIS, first of all – none possible because there’s no possible --


SECRETARY KERRY: Ever, because there’s no possible reconciliation with their philosophy, with their ideology, with their extreme view. This is a group that has been fighting for 50 years now against the government, and we are encouraging them to come to a peace agreement whereby people are indeed accountable for and reconciling for the crimes and the problems that have existed over the course of those 50 years. I think that is an entirely legitimate business of governance, and I think it’s important for us to encourage people to come to a conclusion here. If all you do is say we’re going to just continue to fight, then there’ll be many more victims, much more turbulence, and many more young children and women and other innocent civilians killed and victimized as a consequence of that. So at some point, responsible leadership needs to try to move towards peaceful resolution.

QUESTION: But this is still --

SECRETARY KERRY: That is what we are encouraging.

QUESTION: This is still a group that has killed over a quarter of a million people in those 50 years, and that, since the peace negotiations started, has increased instead of decrease its violence in Colombia --


QUESTION: -- according to a UN report.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but they’re not the ones increasing the violence. It’s right-wing militias that are back, which are as much of an evil as anything else, that have to be prevented from going out and taking law into their own hands. So that’s a different kind of violence.

But look, in history, I mean, if our attitude was we have to kill everybody who was involved in World War II, where would we be with Germany and with Japan? I mean, at some point, you have to try to find a way for reconciliation and for peace. Look at South Africa that had a reconciliation after apartheid for years in which terrible crimes were committed.

So there has to be a way to try to find a path forward, and I think President Santos deserves credit for fighting for that, and I think the fact that FARC has come to the table – they need to be encouraged to give up their weapons, to stop the violence, to accept accountability for what has happened, and then to move forward to defining a new future for Colombia.

QUESTION: One last question concerning President Santos: It was scheduled for a peace agreement to be signed by tomorrow, yet he said he’s not going to abide by a date if it’s a bad agreement. Why still – it’s still a bad agreement at this point?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s – I think it’s because negotiating is always tough. Setting dates is important to try to push the process. They’ve made enormous progress. There are at least four different agreements that have already been reached within the larger agreement. They’re now down to the last section – the last section of the end-of-conflict issues: the disarmament, the political process, and so forth, security.

So I think they deserve great credit for pushing to try to meet a date, but if they don’t meet an exact date and they want to continue to negotiate to finish, we should encourage that. When we negotiated the Iran agreement, we had a date at the end of June. We didn’t meet the date, but we got an agreement by July 14th, two weeks later. That’s the way negotiations work sometimes. And it’s important to put pressure on yourself, but it’s also important not to sign a bad deal because of a date that’s arbitrary. You need to keep pushing to get the best agreement you can get.

QUESTION: Very well, thank you.