MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, Tony, and thanks to all of you who have called in today for this background call on Cuba. This call will be with a senior Department official. For your purposes, I will tell you the name, but again, this call is on background, so please, senior State Department official only – no names or titles. But we have with us [Senior State Department Official].
And with that, I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] for some introductory remarks, and then we’ll go from there. [Senior State Department Official]’s time is limited today, so we want to get started right away.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, [Moderator], and thanks for everyone who’s on the line. This will be quite quick on my part. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson is going down to Havana. She’ll be leaving on Sunday to go down to Havana. This is a continuation of the conversations that we’ve been having. And so they’re really – I guess what I want to say up front is we wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to talk with you all, but I’m afraid I may disappoint you a little bit because there’s not all that much that I’m really going to say that’s any different than we’ve talked about before. We’re continuing to work on the same issues towards the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. That is the focus, again, of these conversations. And we’ll go down there and advance this as far as we can.
We don’t anticipate doing press while in Havana because these really are just continuing conversations. There’s not a historic nature to this one, and there’s not a whole lot of other activities. So we would be happy to do another conference call, another backgrounder when we get back. But there won’t be any announcements coming out of the results of this trip.
So let me stop there and take questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Operator, if you go ahead and call the first question and remind folks how to get into the queue.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you have been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. So again, for your questions, you may queue up by pressing * and then 1.
The first question will come from Michele Kelemen with NPR. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks for doing this. One, are you – is it still the goal to have embassies open in April? And how far have you gotten on the question of the travel restrictions and removing caps on the number of diplomats at the U.S. mission there in Havana?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think, as is always the case, one is in very safe territory when you quote the President. And the President said actually recently that he still thinks that this can be done by April and the Summit of the Americas. So obviously, that’s something that we still would like and is our hope. Whether we succeed at that is part of what I’m going to try and help do since I like to do what the President wants to do. So that’s what we’re going to keep working on. But we’ll see whether we can get to that.
In the question of travel of diplomats and the caps are exactly the issues that we need to continue working on. When we met in – here in Washington in February, those were the issues we discussed. And as is usual in these things, you have proposals and discussions, and it – both Josefina Vidal and Assistant Secretary Jacobson thought it would be useful to have further conversations on that whole range of issues in person.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. We’re ready for the next question, operator.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Juan Lopez with CNN. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], buenas tardes. Thank you very much. So my question – two parts. First is: Was this something that you had planned from your last meeting, or is it a consequence of evolving conversations that you have to have in person? And on a second note, were you surprised at all that Cuba came out and supported Venezuela recently with – after the (inaudible) list of the seven government members that were sanctioned by the U.S.?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, Juan Carlos, I think that it was not planned as of the last time we met – in other words, as of February 27th, we didn’t say let’s get together on March 16th back in Havana. But we did agree at that time that we would continue to have conversations and work would continue to be done in between conversations that took place in person and that we would have further conversations in person if we felt that it was productive to do so. So as we’ve worked over the last couple of weeks on the issues that we discussed on the 27th, it became clear that we were at a good point for us to have another one of these in-person discussions. So I would say that it wasn’t entirely planned, but it was envisioned as possible.
On the Venezuela issue, I guess what I would say there is obviously we’re disappointed with the statement that Cuba made. We don’t think that our taking sovereign actions of the United States Government on our financial system against human rights abusers or those involved in public corruption or in eroding democratic institutions – we believe that’s our right to do and it’s a sovereign decision, and we defend that. But I think that – I guess what I would say is I don’t know that we were surprised, either. Cuba has been, obviously, an ally of Venezuela’s for quite a while. Venezuela’s been an ally of Cuba in the past. But what I will say, and I want to be very clear about this, is it will not have an impact on these conversations moving forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Operator, next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Silvia Ayuso with El Pais newspaper. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. This is a follow-up, actually. I mean, if you’re meeting on Sunday, which is the next day – the day after UNASUR is having a meeting on Venezuela, so are you really so confident that whatever happens with – regarding Venezuela won’t affect your Cuba conversations?
And secondly, I was hoping that maybe you can put a – tell us a bit more what – how is it going with process on the removing Cuba from the list of terrorism states? Do we – can we count on some kind of announcement ahead of the Summit of the Americas? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. On the question of Venezuela and UNASUR, Assistant Secretary Jacobson will actually arrive in Havana on Sunday. We won’t – I would expect they won’t meet until Monday. But it will come after what I understand will be an UNASUR gathering over the weekend. I’m very confident that Assistant Secretary Jacobson and her counterpart who handles the United States and North America – will continue to have the conversations on our bilateral relationship in a way that’s professional and courteous and respectful and will not be overly impacted by what may happen at an UNASUR meeting on Venezuela. So I’m not overly concerned about that. I expect that we’ll be able to continue to have this dialogue and conversation regardless of what comes out of that meeting of South American countries.
On the state sponsor of terrorism list, as we’ve said, all I can continue to say is that review is underway and we’ll complete that as quickly as we can. And obviously, we have always said that that should not be linked to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations or opening of embassies.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Come from Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much indeed. A couple of questions, please, on – maybe on some logistics. Have you set a date yet for the human rights dialogue which is due to be held sometime this month? How long are you planning to be in Havana this time around? And do you have any update on the talks that were held on human trafficking and civil aviation? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure, thanks, Jo. On the human rights dialogue, I don’t think that we have a fixed date yet to announce on that. I think both countries will announce it when we’ve got one. We have agreed to meet at the end of March, and so I expect that pretty soon we’ll narrow that down to a specific set of days. But we want to make sure, obviously, that the right people are available and all of that. So we’re working on that.
On the question of the other dialogue, there was a civil aviation dialogue here on March 2nd and 3rd. Those were government-to-government discussions on civil aviation, which explored various air travel links that would benefit both countries. We’ve obviously seen substantially increased interest in travel between the two countries following the regulations that were put out on January 16th. And we’ve had really good cooperation between the Cuban Civil Aeronautics Institute, the Transportation Safety Administration here and the FAA. And we anticipate that those relationships will lead to a stronger civil aviation cooperation in the future. So my understanding, especially from my Department of Transportation and other colleagues around the interagency, is that those were quite productive and that the Cubans are quite interested in this subject, and they’ll continue in the future.
On trafficking in persons, we also had a conversation among experts on March 6th. And I think it was a very good opportunity for them each to discuss the challenges faced by governments on this issue, some of the best practices that we’ve seen and efforts made to combat it. And we’re going to continue that dialogue and continue, hopefully, to work with Cuba on issues of our national interest and theirs for protection of those involved in trafficking in persons.
So I think it was a very good step, because we had not had face-to-face discussions by experts. And I think that will continue as well. There are a lot of these dialogues going on, and I think that it’s particularly important, for example, that we have, later in this month, scheduled for the 24th to the 26th, the first of a delegation on telecommunications policy that is government to government. That’ll be headed by Ambassador Sepulveda of – the international communications and information policy coordinator here at State. So there’s a lot going on in that area that we’re continuing to see progress on, in some areas where we haven’t had substantive conversations before.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re ready for the next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And that will come from Michael Wiessenstein with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. The fact that you’re coming back down for a third round, are things happening – is this a sign things are happening faster than you had originally expected, that things are more complicated? If you could give us a sense of how things are progressing.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. I mean, I think – I will tell you that from the day this began I never believed that it would be easy or fast or wouldn’t take more than a few meetings in the sense that I was very confident in our first conversation, which really was just setting an agenda, that we would need a second one, and equally confident in our second one, which was the first conversation in which – the second round-up here in Washington in which we really dug into the substance of the issues and actually sort of traded proposals. I think it was equally clear in both our cases that that wasn’t going to be the end of that conversation.
So I will tell you that my expectations have always been that we would need a fair amount of interchange and conversation. I think that – I will say that I think since the second round, because that was a – the first really substantive, deep conversation, I think there’s been a real seriousness of purpose and continued conversation by the head of our interest section, Jeff DeLaurentis in Havana and the head of their interest section Jose Cabanas here in Washington, which is why it makes sense for Assistant Secretary Jacobson to go back down and continue that in person, because there’s been more groundwork laid, more progress made.
So I think it’s going about as I expected, in terms of the pace. So I’m pleased with that and think that we’re making very good progress. As the President and the Secretary have certainly said, you don’t overcome 50 years of policy and distrust in a month. And that’s really about – we’ve only had a little over that, right? I mean, the first conversations were January 21st, and we’re now in the second concluding, I guess, of a month and a half or seven weeks. But that’s pretty good, I think, in terms of people who haven’t had these kinds of conversations for a long time.
So I’m pleased with the pace. And I hope that, if possible, another trip can accelerate that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Two quick ones for you. One, to the extent that you can, talk about if there’s been any shift from Cuba on their – how they feel about the terror designation. I was sort of confused by – or not confused, but it seemed that when you guys gave that press avail a few weeks ago that Josefina perhaps – she said it wasn’t a precondition, but it would be hard. Is that a shift or – I mean, obviously leave the negotiating in the negotiating room, but if there’s anything you can say on that.
And then two, is opening embassies and reestablishing diplomatic relations – is that something – I’d seen that there’s some stuff about having those things separate. Do you see those as one in the same? Thanks.
PARTICIPANT: Thanks, Felicia. On the first question, I know better than to answer the Cuban Government’s policy question for them. As to the question of whether there’s been a shift on their part and how they view the State Sponsor of Terrorism List and it’s role in this conversation, you’d really have to ask them. I think we’ve always said we think those two processes are separate.
Now on the question of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies, let me say I think what the President has said and what I tried to emphasize in the past, which is legally and diplomatically those two things can be separate. We see no reason in this case that they should be. We believe that they ought to happen simultaneously so that we can move things ahead smoothly and we don’t see any reason for those to be somehow artificially broken apart. So we remain hopeful that we will start both those things at the same time, reestablishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies.
MODERATOR: All right. Ready for the next question. Our time is running a little short, so we’ve got time for just a couple more.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Serena Marshall with ABC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I was wondering if there was any movement on the banking front. As we know, the Cuban interest section here in D.C. has said that that’s a big issue for them, unable to do banking. They told us, following the second round of talks, that there was discussion about possibly bringing in international banking to help them move from an all-cash system to use of credit. So is there any – been changes on that front?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, all I can tell you on that front is we continue working really hard on that issue, and we do believe that it’s important that whether it’s an interest section now or an easy in the future, have the ability to bank so that they don’t have to do all of their business in cash. And obviously we’ll continue to work with the Cuban Government and with the financial community to encourage banking relationships so that they can transition out of a situation they’re in right now.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. That will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. My – most of my questions have been answered. I just had one more, which was: Have you been concerned about what dissident communities in Cuba say is an increased number of short-term detentions over the past several weeks, particularly on Sundays when they have their regular marches to church?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me start off by saying we’re always concerned about the detentions of dissidents and activists and people who just want to exercise their free speech. We’ve made pretty clear over the last year that we have been concerned about the increase in number of short-term detentions, because that’s a trend that has been going on for some time now. And we’ve made a number of public statements about it. And it often does take place on Sundays, when either political groups or the – whether it’s the Ladies in White or other actors, UNPACU, in parts of Cuba may engage in peaceful activities, peaceful protest, marches that could take place on the way to church, and are either detained or harassed because of those activities. So we remain concerned about that tactic and that the use of that tactic against human rights activists and those trying to exercise free speech and freedom of assembly remains a concern for us.
MODERATOR: If we can squeak one last question in, Operator. Can we take one more, please?
OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. That will come from Pamela Dockins with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. First of all, really a housekeeping note. You mentioned that your talks start on Sunday. Can you clarify will it be a one-day meeting, or do you expect to stay further into the week?
And then secondly, you spoke a little bit earlier about the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, but I have a follow-up question. Vidal, in the last meeting, which was here in Washington, expressed particular concern about that, saying it would be difficult for her to visualize how U.S. and Cuba could reestablish normal diplomatic ties with that designation still in place. On this trip, will you make any special effort, any concerted effort to address her concerns?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, Assistant Secretary Jacobson travels on Sunday. The conversations begin on Monday. I honestly can’t be exactly sure of when they’ll end. Like most of these kinds of discussions, we are certainly happy to talk for as long as there’s something to talk about, but I don’t expect these to be very lengthy, not a huge number of days. So I think we’ll probably be coming back by mid-week.
And the other thing is that, on the State Sponsor of Terrorism, I’ve certainly heard the comments of the Cuban Government. We continue to work as quickly as we can on this issue, but we don’t think those two things really should be linked. I will say that we – when we talk with the Government of Cuba, as we do the review process, I think everybody understands that the law is clear on what needs to be provided as part of that process. And so to the extent that some of the parts of the review involve information that is needed from the Government of Cuba, certainly those are things that we have talked about in the past or may talk about in the future. But that’s not the same as the set of issues that we talk about under the reestablishment of diplomatic relations more generally.
MODERATOR: All right. Well, thank you to our speaker and thank you to all of our participants today for your questions and your interest. With that, I think we will wrap it up. And just to remind everyone, this has been a background call attributable to a senior State Department official – no names or titles. And we thank you and look forward to talking to you next time. Bye bye. read more