Background Briefing on the Progress Made Toward the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations

Read Time11 Minute, 24 Second
Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
December 15, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you, Kathy. At this stage, we will move to a background briefing with a senior State Department official on the progress made towards normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Kathy, if we could have you take the first call.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: The charge told us that more could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of the opportunities created by the President’s opening to Cuba. What specifically do you want to see the Cuban side do to better exploit these opportunities?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think we could be moving a bit more quickly. [Charge d’Affaires DeLaurentis], of course, had mentioned making it a bit easier for Cubans who wish to start businesses to do so. We’d like to see increased access – to access information online. I mean, these kinds of things for starters. And to avail themselves of the opportunities that the regulatory changes have made.

QUESTION: Well, what about human rights? Don’t you want them to do more on human and political rights, or those are not your top priorities at the moment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, human rights remain very much our top priority. I thought you were directing your question to specifically the economic side. We are hoping that they will give their citizens more space so they can exercise freely their civil and political rights, and we’re now in a position, frankly, to speak to them directly about these issues in a way that we weren’t able to before. And of course, we have started, as I think [Charge d’Affaires DeLaurentis] mentioned in [his] statement, our human rights dialogue, which we hope will – well, we don’t hope – we know will continue as another avenue to push for these issues.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. We’ll move to our next question.

OPERATOR: That will come from Brad Klapper with AP. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay, great. You mentioned aviation as one of the chapters that you included as done or near done, and I recall a few months ago officials saying that you hoped to conclude direct commercial flights, the logistics for that, by the end of the year. Do you still expect to do that, and what hiccups remain, if any, on that process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, discussions are ongoing as we speak, so it – it’s probably difficult – it’s difficult for me to talk much more about the specific negotiations underway. We do hope to achieve a successful outcome of these negotiations very, very soon. It would be wrong of me to pinpoint exactly when, but we certainly hope before the end of the year, if not sooner.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Kathy, can we please move to our next caller?

OPERATOR: Yes, that will come from Julie Davis with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. You mentioned the challenge of property claims kind of hanging over all of this and that that’s one of the issues you’ll continue to talk about. I wondered if you could say whether the U.S. accepts Cuba’s claims of more than $150 billion in damages from the embargo. Is that going to be a part of those talks going forward? And can you tell us what kind of progress you were able to make in that first conversation on this issue last week, and when, if you have a date, for reconvening that conversation or those discussions next year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. Look, the first meeting – it’s a first step in what’s going to be a complex process that will, of course, take some time. But obviously, we view the resolution of outstanding claims as a top priority for normalization. We know that the Cuban side believes that they have billions of dollars of claims relating to human damage and economic damage resulting from the embargo, and I imagine we will hear more about that as we proceed with these discussions. But we’re just at a first step, and we expect to meet again sometime in the first quarter of 2016.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. Kathy, could we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Certainly. We have Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Two questions. The first is in an interview earlier this week, the President was pretty specific about some steps that he wanted to see the Cubans take include currency reform and allowing foreign companies to hire their own employees – Cubans – not through the government. When you talk to the Cubans about this, is – does is it seem like something that they might make progress on before Obama leaves office? And then also in terms of those human rights talks, is there another date for those in the works? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the second part, we are talking about generating another meeting. I can’t report out today a specific date for the next one.

On the earlier question, there certainly are discussions going on about these economic issues that you’ve made reference to. I think we’ll get a good sense as we get closer to the party congress in April as to whether we’ll see rapid progress or not. Obviously, we continue to press for these kinds of economic reforms, which we think would be in the best interest of the Cuban people.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Kathy, can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: That will come from Nicole Gaouette with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Nicole?

QUESTION: [Moderator], can you hear me?

MODERATOR: I can. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Senior Administration Official. My question got asked, but I want to follow up on two smaller things that you mentioned. You said that the President wanted to increase authorized travel –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Could you – Sorry, could you speak up, please? I’m not hearing you very well.

QUESTION: Hang on one sec. Can you hear me now?

MODERATOR: Yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. You said the President wanted to increase authorized travel and that it was up by over 50 percent. I was wondering if you could give us some numbers to understand that increase a little more clearly. You also said regulatory changes have helped promote a Cuban private sector that now counts for one in four workers. I’m wondering what it was – what that number was before normalization.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first, it’s hard to get very specific. I would say I’ve seen some numbers in terms of travelers going from something like 300,000 to 500,000. The number of people-to-people program travelers has expanded significantly. And so I think specifically that’s where we’ve seen the largest increase. But of course, hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans continue to come to visit family as well.

And sorry, the second part of your question was – let me just see. Yeah. I think we’ve seen the numbers of the private sector go from – or those self-employed Cubans rise from about 150,000 to 500,000, and that’s from 2009 to 2015. And we’ve also seen an increase in the number of cooperatives as well. And of course, our business community, I think, can play a role in sharing their expertise on a variety of issues in the area of small business practices.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. Kathy, could we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. That will come from Serena Marshall with ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes, most of my questions were asked also. But I just was wondering if you could follow up on Friday’s announcement of the renewal of mail service between the two countries. If you could provide any details on what that will entail – are people going to be able to mail Cuban products to America such as cigars and rum, or is it mostly letters and that type of thing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, on those two items, as you know, there are restrictions. Obviously, we are starting a pilot program of mail service. I can’t give an exact date yet – it should be very, very soon – of when that will start. But I think the important thing to bear in mind here is that this is the first time we will see direct mail service between the United States and Cuba in something like 50 years.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Senior State Department Official. Kathy, next question.

OPERATOR: That will come from Michele Kelemen with NPR. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how much life in Havana at the embassy has changed. And are you staffing up there? And are you getting more people, the kind of people that you need to do – to increase businesses, for instance, to get more businesses there? Do you have a trade and economics department anymore?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we hope to staff up in the future as we go along. In the meantime we are – we have a lot more access than we did before, and we have a lot more contacts with the various entities of the Cuban Government. And of course, we have a lot more visitors, a lot more U.S. delegations. As you know, we had the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture and all of these high-level discussions, I think, give both sides a sense — a better sense of their respective systems and how we can move forward toward full normalization.

MODERATOR: Great. Kathy, could we have our next question please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Fabiola Santiago with the Miami Herald. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the opportunity to ask my question. Since the President’s announcement, 41,000 Cubans have made their way to the U.S. via Ecuador by crossing seven countries into the U.S. border, and others have come washed ashore in Miami in rafts. Another 6,000 I hear now are reportedly stranded in Costa Rica and Panama because Nicaragua has stopped their path. That’s more Cubans than the balsero exodus of 1994. Is that not a failure of rapprochement? And did the Administration anticipate this? And how do you plan to address this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I would say up front that safe, legal, and orderly migration remains a priority of the U.S. And this is why we have migration accords with the Cuban Government that we have done our best to comply with. I should also say that the Administration at this point has no plans to alter our current migration policy toward Cuba and Cubans.

In terms of the situation – oh, I should also mention, of course, we had a recent discussion with our Cuban counterparts a couple of weeks ago, regularly scheduled migration talks where these issues came up and we agreed to meet again on some technical meetings on how we can both address the smuggling issue. I think the challenging situation that you have outlined sort of illustrates the inherent risks and – what should I say – uncertainties of involvement with smugglers and organized crimes in an attempt to reach the U.S. And we continue to encourage Cuban citizens to apply at the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the several available avenues for legal migration to the U.S.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. We have time for one more question. Kathy, if you could queue up our last question please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Franco Ordonez with McClatchy. Go ahead please.

QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. I had a related question. On the Cuban Adjustment Act, has – what if any additional consideration has the Administration given towards proposal to modify the act? And also in kind of a follow-up to Fabiola’s question, has – what talks has the Administration had with other countries in South America and Central America involving these Cubans and their efforts to cross via the land, their land?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. Again, I would only repeat what I mentioned before, that the Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act. Now, of course, we’re encouraging governments in the region to find solutions to this challenge, including coordinated and comprehensive solutions that focus on preventing the loss of life and ensuring that human rights of all migrants are respected and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, and thank you all to joining the call. We apologize we weren’t able to get to all the questioners in the queue. This is a very popular call. We will be releasing two transcripts later today – the first with the on-the-record briefing with Charge DeLaurentis, and the second transcript, the background briefing with our senior State Department official. Again, thank you for joining the call. Thank you to our senior State Department official, and have a great day.

 

Source: U.S Department of State

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