Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes | Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama
11:48 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Some of you feel very far away. Let me do two quick things at the top and then we’ll go straight to questions.
The first is, earlier today the President had been briefed on the spring storms that hit the Midwestern United States late in the day yesterday and early this morning. In particular, our thoughts are prayers are with the people of Rochelle, Illinois and other communities in the Midwest that have been affected by these spring storms.
FEMA already has personnel in the region who are prepared to support the ongoing response that being’s led by local officials. FEMA has personnel that has an expertise in handling these kinds of events. And we expect that, again, unfortunately this spring they’ll have the opportunity to put that expertise to good work to meeting the needs of the people and local communities there.
The President has asked for regular updates on this ongoing response, and we’re certainly going to ensure that we’ve got the federal supplies and resources that are necessary to support ongoing local efforts.
The second thing that I want to call to your attention that many of you have already reported on today is that later today the President will participate in a ceremony alongside executives from Copa Airlines and Boeing, as well as Panamanian President Varela at a signing of an agreement between Boeing and Copa about the purchase of those Boeing aircraft. The deal, as many of you have already reported, is a $6.6 billion deal involving 61 different aircraft. This is actually the largest commercial aviation deal in Latin America.
Importantly, in the mind of President Obama, this will support 40,000 jobs back home, because we’re not just talking about manufacturing at Boeing facilities; we’re talking about engines that are made by GE, and medium-sized and even small businesses that are involved in this deal up and down the supply chain. This is good news and it’s a good reminder of how important opening up overseas markets to American businesses is a critical part of the U.S. economy and is going to be critically important to continuing to strengthen our ongoing economic recovery.
Panama is a place where we’ve seen important growth since President Obama took office. In just the last five years, exports to Panama have increased 70 percent. And again, this is indicative of the President’s view that opening up overseas markets to American goods and services can be very beneficial to our economy and can be important to creating good middle-class jobs.
So with all of that, why don’t we go to your questions, and I’ll call on people. And I anticipate many of your questions will be for Ben, so I’ll let him step in and answer the foreign policy questions you may have. But if there are any on other topics, we can take those too.
So, Jim, do you want to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. Ben, I wondered if you could bring us up to speed on kind of latest developments with Cuba. Has the President reviewed the State Department recommendation on removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror? And can you give us a readout of Wednesday’s phone call that the White House confirmed today?
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Jim. So, first of all, with respect to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the President initiated this review of Cuba’s presence on the list as a part of the announcements he made on December 17th. I think we have been very transparent about the process.
What has taken place now is complete in terms of the State Department’s work. That review and recommendation is then passed for consideration to other members of the President’s national security team so that they can review the contents of the State Department’s work. And then, when that is complete, a final decision and recommendation will be made to the President, and he will make a determination about what action to take.
So we’re not all the way through that process, but the review is complete. This has gone to other members of the President’s national security team for their consideration. And then a final recommendation will be forwarded to the President, and we will keep you updated as that process goes forward.
With respect to the phone call between President Obama and President Castro, they spoke on Wednesday in advance of the summit. I think they understood that this is obviously a very unique occurrence in the Americas -- the first Summit of the Americas that Cuba is participating in, and that also our two governments are in a process of discussions about many aspects of our relationship, including the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies. And they understood as well that their foreign ministers -- Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, of Cuba -- would be meeting yesterday.
So they were able to review the status of our efforts to complete the work of establishing those formal diplomatic relations, and also what the various issues were that were going to be addressed here at the summit.
Q Can you talk a little bit about that discussion that Kerry had with Foreign Minister Rodriguez last night? It’s been described as a lengthy discussion, and it seems a little bit curious that they would have these lengthy discussions and the President would have that conversation with President Castro, but this issue of the terror list, which is so important to the Cubans, would remain kind of an open question.
MR. RHODES: I see. Well, the Cubans understand our process, and they essentially understand that the President will make a decision when all of the various elements of our review are completed. So there is not really a cause for much discussion about the SSOT because, frankly, they understand that that is a process that the United States is undertaking.
I would add that we are doing this review based not on a broader set of considerations about our relationship with Cuba. The review looks at the very narrow question of is Cuba a state sponsor of terror; does Cuba provide support for terrorist attacks abroad; do they provide support for international terrorist organizations. And so on that narrow question, we’ve completed the work of the review, and the President will make that final determination.
At the same time, we have a variety of issues that we’re talking to the Cubans about that relate to the formal establishment of diplomatic relations through the opening of embassies. The two leaders have decided to take that step of establishing diplomatic relations, but there are a lot of very practical issues that relate to establishing embassies that run the gamut from the types of operations that our various diplomats do, the types of resources that support both of our embassies. So there are actually just very practical, specific and sometimes technical issues that we're reviewing with the Cubans as part of that process that Roberta Jacobson has been leading, but that Secretary Kerry has been engaged in, as well.
And the fact is that part of this process of normalization is communicating more regularly at different channels. So again, not just at the Assistant Secretary level, but at the level of Secretary Kerry and President Obama.
So again, their discussion I think was largely focused on the issues associated with the establishment of the formal diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies.
Q It seems that a Summit of the Americas (inaudible) where you’d want to showcase some kind of breakthrough. Do you agree? And have you set up a specific meeting with President Castro -- perhaps tomorrow -- that will show the rest of the hemisphere what the progress has been?
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, the fact of the summit and Cuba’s participation of the summit I think already indicates the historical nature of this gathering, and the significant changes that were announced by the United States and Cuba in December, as does the first-of-its-kind civil society forum that's taking place here. So I think you already see leaders across the region welcoming the decision that President Obama took both privately and publicly, as you saw with the CARICOM countries yesterday.
With respect to the two Presidents, we certainly do anticipate that they will have the opportunity to see each other at the summit tomorrow to have a discussion. So we will keep you updated as to any interaction between the leaders. Again, we don't have a formal meeting scheduled at a certain time, but we certainly anticipate that they will have a discussion tomorrow in the context of the summit -- on the margins of that summit.
Q Quickly, on another subject. Iran’s Supreme Leader and President Rouhani are saying they will not sign a nuclear agreement unless all economic sanctions are lifted on the first day of the deal’s implementation. And Khamenei also said that no military facilities would be available for inspections. Is that a deal -- is that kind of a nonstarter as far as the United States is concerned, or the P5?
MR. RHODES: Again, we have an agreement with the P5+1 and the Iranians on the framework of a comprehensive nuclear deal. And on those two specific issues, with respect to sanctions I think it’s very clear and understood that sanctions relief will be phased with respect to Iran; that they will have to conduct certain -- take certain steps as a part of earning the continued provision of sanctions relief.
There is one particular question that relates to U.N. Security Council resolutions. And there, what we are working to do is to ensure that there is a maintenance of the ability to snap back into place sanctions on Iran on a multilateral basis. But also, as we take the various different U.N. Security Council resolutions that form the basis of the multilateral sanctions, that the U.N. Security Council will replace that architecture of sanctions with a U.N. Security Council resolution that both endorses the comprehensive deal -- if we complete one -- but also, while providing sanctions relief to Iran, preserves important sanctions, including on areas that are not related to its nuclear program, like ballistic missile and sensitive technologies.
So this is an area where we are working to finalize details between now and June 30th, as well as the provision of the ability for sanctions to snap back into place.
Certainly the Iranians are emphasizing their interest and desire to achieve sanctions relief in this deal. But the fact of the matter is we have a framework, and the President has said if the details don't bear out the agreement that was reached, we're not going to get a final deal.
So what we will be testing over the next two and a half months as we seek to finalize the comprehensive deal is just how we can lock the framework into an implementation plan that gives us the assurance that Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon.
On the military sites, similarly, clearly there will have to be the ability for the IAEA to conduct inspections that are consistent with what’s in the framework, which includes resolving past issues of concern with the IAEA related to possible military dimensions of Iran’s program, as well as Iran joining the additional protocol and having the ability of the IAEA to inspect suspicious sites, no matter where they are, if the United States and other countries, again, present information and seek access through the IAEA to those sites.
So the President believes that the framework that was reached is a sound one, a good one, and that frankly we need to make sure that over the next two and a half months the details that are negotiated and the implementation plan that is negotiated locks in that framework. And if the final deal isn’t consistent with the framework that we’ve reached, we won’t be able to get there. But I’m confident that there is going to be the ability to work hard and complete this work if Iran continues to show a will to get this done.
MR. EARNEST: Jim.
Q First up for you, Josh, and maybe Ben wants to comment on this, as well. But on the possibility of a meeting between Raul Castro and President Obama, is it difficult for them to have a -- is it politically difficult for them to have a formal sit-down meeting, bilateral meeting as long as they continue to be on the terrorist list? Is that something that has to be overcome before they can actually sit down in a bilateral? Must it continue to be casual, sort of step-aside meetings until --
MR. RHODES: No, Jim, I don’t think so. The two leaders have made this decision to pursue normalization, recognizing that there are going to be all kinds of differences along the way. There will be some areas that we can identify for practical cooperation and some areas of difference.
And again, the fact is we are nearing completion of the SSOT review. So we don’t think that that in any way should get in the way of the two leaders being able to have discussions. They’ve spoken on the phone twice. And in those discussions they’ll certainly have areas of difference, just as they also I think will underscore that they’re both committed to the new path that the United States and Cuba are on.
Q So do you expect more than informal meetings then at this point? Or are you --
MR. RHODES: Jim, we’ll see. Frankly, a lot of this is just working around a schedule at the summit tomorrow in which there are various plenary sessions. But at times, the President is able to step out and have meetings and discussions with other leaders, and we’ll keep you updated as we lock in more details related to his interactions with other leaders.
Q Just on the policy itself, in this new era of diplomacy, the President has repeatedly said that he believes engagement is the best way to effect change for the Cuban people. Does that change that the U.S. is looking for now continue to include regime change? Or has the policy changed about that?
MR. RHODES: Well, Jim, we’re establishing -- we’re committed to establishing diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. So we are not focused on overthrowing the Cuban government. We’re not focused on changing the existing regime at a time when we’re obviously engaging that government.
I think where there’s a difference relates to our respective political systems. And clearly, the United States is going to continue to have issues with, at times be critical of, elements of the Cuban political system. And the types of things that we like to support and like to see around the world involve respect for freedom of assembly, political participation, the ability of citizens to access information.
So all of those values and principles we’ll continue to support, but we’ve clearly made a decision to engage the Cuban government. And while we have a complex history with Cuba, I think what’s clearly understood here in the hemisphere is the United States is not in the business of going around and overthrowing governments in Latin America. We’re in the business of practical cooperation, and where we do have differences we articulate those clearly and directly and publicly.
But again, we work within the context of a region that has been moving in the direction of democracy and greater development and prosperity. So the trend lines are good. And frankly, we believe our engagement with Cuba will certainly improve the lives of the Cuban people, and in no way does it change our commitment to seeing the values we believe in take hold across the Americas broadly.
Q But do you envision Raul Castro assisting the United States in any way dealing with the Venezuelan issue here at this conference, which is a major issue for many of the other countries?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think Venezuela is an issue where we clearly have at times found reasons to criticize the government’s actions in terms of elected officials and opposition leaders being put in prison, for instance.
At the same time, we’ve indicated that we’re open to a dialogue with Venezuela as well. We’ll make our positions very clear in that dialogue. Cuba clearly has a close relationship with the Venezuelans. But again, I think these are issues that frankly we can discuss directly with Venezuela as we recently did by having Tom Shannon, a senior State Department official, travel to Venezuela for a series of meetings.
So our principal way of communicating with Venezuela will be direct dialogue, even as we know that there are going to be differences between our two governments on a variety of issues.
Q For you, Josh and Ben. So this meeting tomorrow -- under normal circumstances you would have preparatory lower-level meetings to lead to something. Is it fair for us to conclude that the phone call -- the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister meeting yesterday were a prelude building up to whatever happens tomorrow, and that there is a desire to have something that is more substantive than a glancing encounter? That this is going to be something where some business of some kind is going to be discussed between these two leaders?
And, Josh, can you give us any kind of commitment to coverage or visibility of this? Because it will obviously be enormously important (inaudible). Then I’ve got a follow-up on what happened here Wednesday.
MR. RHODES: So again, depending on the nature of their discussion, we’ll certainly take into consideration the interest that folks will have in covering it. So we certainly understand the historic nature of this summit generally, and any interaction between the two leaders. So we’ll certainly take that on-board, Major.
With respect to the preparatory work -- as we’ve had this process of normalization, there have been a series of discussions. So over the course of the last several months, since the Presidents made their announcements, Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, has met a number of times with her Cuban counterpart in both Havana and in Washington. Secretary Kerry has spoken on the phone with the Cuban Foreign Minister. We have other dialogues with the Cubans on a variety of issues.
So there is actually a growing communication with the Cuban government that is consistent with normalizing relations. And that includes, frankly, other issues too. We, for instance, are very interested in supporting the development of greater telecommunications capacity inside of Cuba, which frankly would be good not just for U.S. businesses but for the Cuban people and their ability to access information. The State Department had their lead advisor on telecommunications issues travel to Cuba.
So there’s a range of issues where we’ve been in a dialogue with the Cubans. So the two leaders, I think, will be able to address and take stock in any discussion they have -- where we are in the process of normalization; where we are in the discussions around the establishment of embassies; and where we are going to continue to have differences and be up front and candid about those differences.
Frankly, I think just the fact of the summit, too, and Cuba’s participation does signal a new chapter in this region that is very broadly welcomed by the countries of the Americas. So I think that will be -- I think you’ll hear other leaders tomorrow speaking to their support for the decision the President made.
Q And on Wednesday, there was a fracas here between Cuban dissidents and pro-Castro supporters. The dissidents we talked to say that is an illustration that Cuba feels unencumbered; that it can quash dissent not only in Cuba but at the Summit of the Americas, and that flagrant use of force to beat up people who want to have a different opinion and want to have a political voice in Cuba ought to be renounced by the United States. And from their perspective, the move toward normalizing relations is only going to feed the desire and the will of the Cuban regime to continue behavior like that. How do you react to that?
MR. RHODES: Well, Major, first of all, we obviously renounce any use of violence to silence the voices of civil society activists and citizens, whether they be from Cuba or anywhere in the Americas. On that particular incident, we expressed our serious concerns about the use of violence against those civil society representatives. And frankly, how grossly inconsistent that was with the spirit of dialogue here in the Americas.
The fact of the matter is though, Major, what you’re seeing at this summit is, those voices were not silenced. They are participating on the margins of the Summit of the Americas and the Civil Society Forum. They are, together with people from across the region, representing civil society who have differences of views. And the view of the United States has always been there’s nothing to fear from civil society. Civil society, on the contrary, has a fundamental role to play in all of our societies and all of our countries.
And so we’ll continue to speak out in support of the ability of independent voices in Cuba to be heard, the ability of people to speak freely without fear of intimidation. And yes, we have seen regular patterns of harassment of civil society in Cuba. But our very strong belief is that a policy that the United States had pursued for 50 years was not succeeding in many different ways, including in supporting a more positive environment within Cuba for civil society; and that, frankly, U.S. engagement with the Cuban people over the long run is going to improve circumstances for the Cuban people, is going to give them greater access to information, is going to give them greater interconnection with the rest of the hemisphere and the rest of the world.
So our strategy of engagement with Cuba is not only entirely consistent with our support for civil society; it, frankly, is a better way of being able to engage a broad cross-section of the Cuban people as they seek to improve their own lives and their own connections with the United States and the people of the Americas.
Q Quick question about the phone call on Wednesday. Can you tell us how long it lasted, and also just give us some more details about what they actually talked about?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, they discussed the continued efforts that we were making with respect to the establishment of diplomatic relations. They discussed the upcoming summit and the ongoing conversations that Secretary Kerry is leading with his counterpart, both on the diplomatic relations and with respect to the summit. And they reviewed the fact that we're going to continue to have areas of common cooperation but also areas of difference.
So again, I think they touched on the different elements of the normalization process and the nature of the U.S.-Cuban relationship. And I think it was a good opportunity to set a clear direction for the continued discussions that Secretary Kerry would have with Foreign Minister Rodriguez. And as we come to the summit that is truly historic in nature, that is the first time Cuba is participating in Summit of the Americas, it made sense for the two of them to be in contact as we prepared for the various interactions we were going to have both with Cuba here and with other leaders from the hemisphere.
Q How long did it last?
MR. RHODES: I can't give you a specific time. It was not a particularly lengthy call. We can go back and check, and I can let you know if we can be more specific.
MR. EARNEST: Toluse.
Q Could you let us know who initiated the call? Was it the Cubans? Was it the President? Who decided to make this call?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think it was a mutual decision because we are in discussions with Cuba in a variety of channels. We certainly thought it was a good idea for there to be a phone call between the leaders so we could make clear where we are in terms of our efforts, where we see potential for progress, where we need to continue to stress that there are going to be differences between our governments. So I think it emerged out of the discussions that we’ve been having with the Cuban government, and the timing on the eve of the summit was appropriate for both sides.
Q In terms of tomorrow’s meeting, have the Cubans actually requested a meeting? Have they asked for a sit-down with the President?
MR. RHODES: Again, we’ve been in contact with the Cubans, and they certainly -- as we are -- they're certainly expecting that we’ll be able to find a time for the two leaders to have that discussion on the margins of the Summit of the Americas. And frankly, we’ll just continue to work through the details of how we can structure that interaction consistent with the fact that there’s an ongoing series of plenary sessions that the two leaders are participating in. But we, from the level of Secretary Kerry on down, have a variety of ways of having that conversation with the Cubans.
Q One quick one on the Iranian negotiations and the Ayatollah’s comments yesterday. In the past, Josh, you’ve said that President Rouhani has basically missed -- he’s focused on one area of the agreement, but yesterday the Ayatollah basically said that the framework that you all put out was misleading and that it lied. How do you sort of react to that, that ratcheting up of the commentary?
MR. RHODES: So I think what I’d say is this. The Supreme Leader has said many, many things over the years that we have strong objections to. But the fact of the matter is, if you go back and look at the Joint Plan of Action, the interim agreement that we reached with the Iranians, there was a similar dynamic in the sense that we reached a Joint Plan of Action in November of 2013. We released information about that Joint Plan of Action knowing that we still had to finalize the implementation details which were not done until January.
In that period of time between November and January, the Iranians criticized the information we put out, and they said that it did not reflect the deal. But the fact of the matter is, they then implemented the deal. The details that were negotiated reflected the Joint Plan of Action, and they have abided by every commitment that they made to the United States and the P5+1 in the Joint Plan of Action.
So we’ve been through this before where the Iranians clearly want to highlight certain aspects for their own public. They have their own hardliners who are skeptical of this deal. But that cannot change the facts of what not just the United States, but the P5+1 agreed to in terms of this framework in Lausanne. And the test of whether or not that framework can be memorialized in a deal is not going to be a comment on any given day by a particular Iranian leader. The test is going to be whether, if at the end of June we have a document that is agreed to that is able to be presented, that represents what is necessary for us to meet our core objectives of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and having the type of inspections and transparency that can verify that.
MR. EARNEST: Jim.
Q Can you go ahead and just tell us what the State Department is recommending on the list of state sponsors of terrorism?
MR. RHODES: So, Jim, the President will be the one who has to make the final judgment about a recommendation, so we won’t want to prejudge his decision by getting into what the State Department document says. But again, what I would say is the question in this process is does Cuba provide support for terrorism? Have they engaged in actions, and are they currently providing support for international terrorist organizations? And that’s a very specific question. And the President will be guided and looking at the review by the facts, by the specific question of does Cuba act as a state sponsor of terrorism.
And, look, there may be instances in history where Cuba has certainly done things and supported acts of violence that the United States strongly objects to, but the reason why there’s a process to review a country’s inclusion on that list is because circumstances change, and we need to regularly reassess whether or not a country should still be on the list or, frankly, whether there’s a country that isn’t on the list that should be on the list.
So I don’t want to prejudge the decision, but I think it is important to highlight that this is focused specifically on the factual question of Cuba’s relationship with terrorism and its commitment to not provide support for terrorism.
Q On the meeting that you’re saying should take place tomorrow, the encounter, interaction -- whatever you want to call it -- would you put this on the same level as the last high-level encounter between a Cuban and U.S. leader going back to Vice President Nixon and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro in 1959, and before that Eisenhower and Batista? Is that a fair comparison to make in terms of what we’re going to be seeing tomorrow? Or is this going to be so fast, it really just doesn’t meet that kind of standard?
MR. RHODES: I think it’s a fair comparison, Jim. And look, we’ve already had the first interaction, first meeting between our foreign ministers since 1958. That happened last night. We’ve had the first phone calls between the President of the United States and the President of Cuba certainly that I’m aware of since a similar timeframe. So we're in new territory here.
And the reason we're here, though, is because the President strongly believes that an approach that was focused entirely on isolation, focused entirely on seeking to cut off the Cuban people from the United States of America had failed, and that a policy of engagement won’t just lead to the ability to work with the Cuban government in some areas, it will lead to much greater engagement with the Cuban people.
And even just over the course of the last several months, we're seeing things that would have been unimaginable a year ago. Because of the restrictions that the President changed, the policy changes that he’s already made, you have Airbnb setting up a business in Cuba so that people can travel there and stay in Cuban homes, which is good for Americans and good for the Cuban people.
You have direct air links that are going to be established so people can travel directly to Cuba from the United States. You have very important, symbolic efforts like the NBA traveling down to Cuba. Much greater interaction and people-to-people exchanges already.
So this is not just about two leaders sitting down together, it’s about fundamentally changing how the United States engages Cuba -- its government, its people, its civil society. All of that is reflected here at the summit. And we believe that will have a profoundly positive impact not just for our own interests, but for the Cuban people.
Q Can I ask you one on Iran? Are you guys going to be okay in being able to deal if they do come up with a veto-proof majority in the Senate to give Corker -- the Corker bill the ability to provide a check on whatever deal -- is that something that you -- I suppose you’ll have to if they do come up with that veto-proof majority.
MR. RHODES: Well, I don't want to prejudge what may happen in Congress. I don't know, Josh, if you want to add anything to this. But the fact of the matter is, next week we’ll have the ability to brief Congress on the framework. We’ll have the ability to explain why certain actions by Congress in this very sensitive negotiating period would be counterproductive to getting the deal done. That will involve Secretary Kerry. That will involve Secretary Moniz. That will involve other members of our national security team.
And I think what we’d say to Congress is: We understand you have a role to play. We respect your interest in Iran policy and the need for there to be a congressional oversight of the deal, but here’s why we believe that this window of time needs to be protected in terms of there not being actions that are counterproductive, and why we believe we're working towards a good deal.
And if and when there are votes, we’ll deal with that. But frankly, we're not at that point yet. We're at a point of consulting with different members of Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think the only thing I would to add to that is it’s just important to remember, even as we evaluate potential congressional activity, is this is not an agreement just between Iran and the United States, but this is an agreement between Iran and the broader international community. And it’s important that Congress, even as they -- as Ben pointed out -- take actions that are consistent with their rightful role of having oversight over the deal also recognize that international unity has been critical to our success in applying pressure to Iran and getting them to make the kinds of important commitments that they’ve already made to ensure that we’ve shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapons.
Q Thanks. I just want to follow up on Major’s question about the scuffle. (Inaudible) some folks from Miami (inaudible). On Wednesday you said that -- you expressed concern over certain leaders of civil society. Can you be any more specific about what was said or who you spoke with, or who (inaudible)? Can you just put a little more context to that?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, we spoke publicly at the time and expressed our serious concern over that incident. We’ve certainly been able to make clear to the Cuban government our concerns about that incident. We've also been able to speak to Cuban civil society and other civil society members. And again, this is a regional Civil Society Forum -- so it's not just Cuban participants, but there are people from across the region -- to encourage a respectful dialogue that is consistent with the spirit of the Summit of the Americas, which should be a place for all the people of the region to come together, not because they’re going to agree on everything, but because having this type of platform for dialogue is in our interest.
And again, this is a unique occurrence in terms of the Civil Society Forum. This is the first time there’s been a forum like this at a Summit of the Americas; certainly been the first time you’ve had Cuban participation in that summit. That would include people who are supportive of the government and certainly people who are critical of the government.
And I think, Chris, the important thing is that incident took place; it's not inconsistent with incidents you hear about in Cuba. But the Civil Society Forum went on. People continued to have their voices heard. People were still able to participate and interact with civil society from across the region. So, again, that doesn’t diminish our concern over what happened, but I think it indicates that people’s voices are going to be heard in the end, and resorting to violence and intimidation in 2015 is not going to be sufficient when people want to have their voices heard and want to have a venue to participate with their civil society colleagues from across the region.
Q And to the point of what you talked about -- areas of difference and why some of the folks who were involved with that would call the violations of human rights that are ongoing in Cuba, and that's why they oppose this normalization of relations. What’s the message? And what’s the message specifically to Raul Castro?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think in terms of differences between our government, we have been very clear that we're going to continue to speak up for human rights, and we're going to continue to have differences as it relates to the nature of Cuba’s political system -- just as I would fully anticipate the Cuban government to make clear its opposition to the United States’ ongoing presence at Guantanamo Bay, for instance.
So normalization is a process. We've already changed a lot about our relationship just in the last several months in terms of much greater high-level dialogue and much greater engagement with the Cuban people. I think the next major step is certainly the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies as it relates to the normalization process. But that doesn’t mean that there’s still not going to be these fundamental tensions that exist.
Our question is, is it better to address our differences as it relates to human rights in Cuba by not talking to the Cuban government, by cutting ourselves off from the Cuban people, and by clinging to a policy of isolation that has failed for 50 years, or is it better to give us much greater engagement with the Cuban people and Cuban government to make our views known.
Q And finally, when we look at Americans, particularly Cuban Americans, or even folks within that country who oppose the direction that the administration is taking, do you see it as largely generational?
MR. RHODES: Yes -- I think, Chris, first of all, if you look at any sampling of American opinion since the President made his announcement, you see very broad support for what he’s done. I think if you look at the Cuban American community, it is very understandable that people of an older generation who recall some very difficult times with the revolution and with the differences between our governments throughout the Cold War, that they might take a much more skeptical view of turning the page to this new chapter.
But as you say, you also see a great openness among Cuban Americans, and particularly younger Cuban Americans, for a new approach of engagement.
And look, part of what’s happened here is the President, when he took office, lifted restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba. So you had Cuban Americans going down to the island in ways that they were not able to before. And frankly, that only increased their support for engagement, because they got down there and they saw that their ability to interact with Cubans, their ability to see what was taking place on the island was a positive development; that they didn’t want to be walled off from interaction with Cuba. And very importantly, the most important survey that I’ve seen recently is the one that said that 97 percent of Cubans support normalization.
So where we’ve always agreed, even with our critics, is on the notion that U.S. policy should support the aspirations of the Cuban people. Well, if 97 percent of the Cuban people want this normalization, how would it be supporting the Cuban people to deny them this normalization? And that’s a message that I think we’d be comfortable making and delivering anywhere in the United States to any of our critics, which is to say we share your concern about the situation that the Cuban people face; we share your concerns about some of the restrictions that the Cuban people face.
But if the Cuban people are telling us almost uniformly that they think this policy should change and they want greater engagement with the United States, we have to listen to them, as well.
Q About the review of the terror list, are you saying that there won’t be an announcement during the summit indicating whether Cuba will be removed from the list or not?
MR. RHODES: I think what -- we will continue to be transparent with you about how this process moves forward. Again, right now it’s in the final stages in terms of members of the President’s national security team having a chance to review the State Department’s work. It will come to the President when that’s complete.
So I’m not ruling out any announcement, but I am saying that we’re not there yet in terms of a final recommendation being given to the President and the President making a determination. So we’ll keep you updated, but it’s not complete at this point.
MR. EARNEST: Carol.
Q This is for Ben. One of Castro’s aides said yesterday that while the terrorism designation is great and everything, it’s really going to require the U.S. to lift the embargo, to give back Gitmo, among other things. Can you address that? And can you give a sense of what you guys see as the timing for getting Congress to act on that?
MR. RHODES: So, look, it doesn’t in any way surprise me that the Cuban government wants the embargo lifted and wants a variety of changes to take place. The fact of the matter is, though, that -- I mean, that’s what we mean when we talk about normalization is a process. The establishment of diplomatic relations and the commitment to open embassies, that’s a decision that the leaders have taken, and that’s a discussion we’re having with Cuba on very specific and technical and practical issues about how two embassies can operate in Havana and in the United States.
Even after we open an embassy in Cuba, there is still going to be the congressionally imposed embargo in place and there is still going to be a U.S. presence at Guantanamo that Cuba objects to just as there’s still going to be a Cuban political system in place that we’re going to find much cause to criticize at certain points.
However, the clear direction from the President is that we need to be moving in the direction of greater and greater and greater engagement, not just with the government but with the people. And that’s where the embargo comes in, because the people who have suffered significantly under the embargo include ordinary Cubans who are not able to engage with the United States. So the President has called on Congress to begin the work of lifting the embargo.
There are efforts underway in Congress in different aspects of that. So, for instance, there’s an effort underway to lift the travel ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. We think that is something that would get very broad support in the United States. Why should Americans be denied the ability to travel to Cuba? There are efforts underway to lift some of the restrictions as it relates to agricultural, commercial activity in Cuba, and there are efforts to lift the embargo all together.
And look, while we know that’s not going to happen in the immediate term, what we see is bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress for the policy the President is pursuing. And if we are demonstrating that engagement is moving forward, has the support of the American people, has the support of the Cuban people, and is helping to support improvements in the life of the Cuban people, I think those coalitions will grow.
And just as it was very hard to foresee a year ago that we’d be standing here with Cuba at the summit and the commitment to establish diplomatic relations and all kinds of ties between our people, I think it could change very fast. And you could see congressional action in different aspects in the next -- certainly within the next several years.
MR. RHODES: The terrorist designation?
Q No, just for the Congress to do something.
MR. RHODES: Well, we would like Congress to do something as soon as possible. But I think realistically looking at it -- look, I think if you look at something like lifting the travel ban, there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen very soon because Americans want to travel to Cuba. And I think there will be opposition to that in Congress, so I don’t want to make a prediction about anything with respect to how fast Congress will act on a certain matter. But I do think what you’ll see is there’s bipartisan support for that action, there’s support from the American people for that action. We’ll make a case for it. And ultimately, it's up to Congress as to when they’re able to move that through.
Q Thanks. Appreciate it. Just housekeeping first. Just to be clear, Thursday there was no phone call between President Obama and Raul Castro?
MR. RHODES: That’s right. So there have been different reports. The only call was on Wednesday. They have spoken twice -- once before the announcement December 17th, and the other was Wednesday.
Q You mention opposition and perhaps some bipartisan support as well in Congress. Senators Menendez and Rubio have been very forceful in their opposition to this. What do you say to them as they try to represent the constituents who look at the Castro regime as one that has a long track record of human rights abuses, as you pointed out; imprisonment of local dissidents -- property? How do you square this sort of compartmentalization? You know that they’ve done some of these things, you’re aware of it, and yet you seem consistent in your push to try to normalize the relationship.
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, as I said, we’d point out that the American people support this change, Cuban-Americans increasingly support this change, and the Cuban people overwhelmingly support this change in U.S. policy.
So if our concern is what can we be doing that is best for the Cuban people, if the clear indication is did you have 97 percent of the Cuban people supporting normalization, as the recent survey indicated, that signals that we should be moving in a new direction. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, we’ve tried this approach for 50 years and it didn’t work. All the things that we’ve objected to in Cuba were happening over the course of the last several decades. And our policy was in no way changing that. Those practices by the Cuban government were ongoing, despite the embargo, despite the isolation.
And this new approach we believe is better -- a better way to improve things on the island; to improve conditions for the Cuban people; to engage with not just the government, but the Cuban people.
And look, the last thing I’d say here is we understand that people are going to have differences; we don’t expect everybody to agree with what we’re doing. But we share the same objective in the sense that we want to see life on the island improve. We believe that that will happen -- that it's much more likely to happen through engagement, and that engagement has to include the Cuban government. And things are changing there. You do see incremental but important economic reforms that are opening up some space for the Cuban people. We want to encourage those reforms, and I think removing ourselves entirely from the conversation with the Cuban people and the Cuban government is not the most effective way to encourage reform.
Q Very quick follow-up. Do you have an example in history, whether it be from an American perspective or another perspective, of where you’ve seen this turn out positively?
MR. RHODES: Well, certainly you have many examples of the United States being engaged with governments that we have profound differences with, and supporting an evolution of those governments over time. Here in the Americas, there are any number of countries that had very authoritarian models in place that evolved into democracies who we would now fully welcome and embrace as members in good standing of the community of democracies -- whether you look at Chile or Argentina, or a variety of other countries in Central America who went through very painful periods -- some of whom we had relations with, some of whom were adversarial to us, some of whom we supported. But our general view is that the trend lines in the Americas are moving in the direction of democracy, and U.S. engagement is a better way of promoting that.
And, look, even around the world, we have relations with countries that are constructive where we have not yet seen a transformation. With Vietnam, for instance. The United States initiated diplomatic relations with Vietnam, even though they were a one-party state. That has certainly led to an improvement in terms of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, U.S. commerce with Vietnam. It’s led to an improvement in the lives of the Vietnamese people. But there’s still a political progression that has not taken place in Vietnam, and we speak out when we see human rights violations.
So if the United States refused to have diplomatic relations with every country in the world that committed human rights abuses, or that we had difference with respect to their political system, we would stop talking to a lot of people, and we would lose the ability to seek to move those countries in a more constructive direction. Singling out Cuba in the way that we have, in our view, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Q A question on Venezuela. (Inaudible) we hear from some of the foreign ministers that the U.S. should step back from its declaration of Venezuela being part of the national security threat? (Inaudible) procedural issue as to why it was put on that list. Is there any chance the U.S. might find some way of going back to that (inaudible)? Because clearly it hasn’t --
MR. RHODES: Well, there’s a long tradition in the hemisphere of concerns related to the use of certain tools, including sanctions. What the United States has made clear is that there are going to be circumstances around the world where we have to criticize governments when they're engaged in activities like putting opposition leaders in prison.
These sanctions that were imposed were focused very specifically on a number of individuals associated with human rights violations. At the same time, I think what we’ve made clear is that these sanctions were not imposed because we thought Venezuela threatens the security of the United States, and that the United States is not interested in threatening Venezuela or overthrowing its government.
And I think you will find broad support in the hemisphere for the notion that Venezuela does have a series of internal challenges that have to be dealt with. The countries in the region have been trying to support and promote dialogue within Venezuela. We’ve been supportive of their efforts in doing so because instability in Venezuela is not good for the region, just as it’s not good for the Venezuelan people.
The other thing, though, that we’ve signaled is, look, even as we're going to be critical, we're not opposed to dialogue. We have a dialogue with the Venezuelan government where we lay out our concerns and can address a variety of issues. And I think that varied approach is something that is well understood in the hemisphere. And I think you’ll see a constructive tone taken by many of the leaders on this issue, even if, as a general matter, many countries in the hemisphere are not supportive of the use of sanctions in any case, whether it be Venezuela or other issues around the world.
MR. EARNEST: Julie.
Q (Inaudible) -- talked about in the first Summit of the Americas that he attended. So I wonder whether you can just characterize for us the President’s sort of state of mind as he watches all of these developments unfold here this week -- the phone call, the meeting with Kerry, his own meeting with Castro. Does he feel impatient? Does he feel frustrated that it’s taking a long time? Does he feel vindicated? And how determined is he to sort of push this ahead quickly, given that potentially this could all -- a lot of this could be rolled back, with the exception of the congressionally imposed pieces after he’s gone from office?
MR. RHODES: I think the President feels very confident that this is the right course and that it's already bearing fruit. Again, because of the announcement we made, and then the policy and regulatory changes we made, you're already seeing commercial activity in Cuba, U.S. business delegations, increased travel and people-to-people exchanges. That is all already taking off, and it's very heartening. And all the reports you hear back from Cuba relate to the fact that the Cuban people just want more and more of that engagement. They’re hungry for it.
And so I think the President, number one, is very pleased to see activity taking place of its own accord, including outside of governments, including by businesses, state governments, and others reaching out and engaging in the Cuban people in ways that are going to make life better and also advance our own interests.
Second, I think he’s very pleased that there’s enormous support for this in the hemisphere. The last Summit of the Americas we were at, the only thing we talked about was why the United States was opposing Cuba participating in the Summit of the Americas, or why we were still maintaining our policy of isolation. Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba was isolating the United States in our own backyard. And that has been the trend over many years.
This time we arrive here, yes, not agreeing with everybody about everything, so certainly on an issue like Venezuela we've had differences with the Venezuelan government, but I think you find very broad agreement from the leaders here that what the President did is the right thing and it's going to open up the door not just to greater engagement with Cuba, but potentially I think more constructive relations across the hemisphere generally.
I think with respect to the timing of the work with the Cuban government, the President said in December, change is not going to come overnight to Cuba because we made this announcement. They’re going to continue to have the political system that we have significant problems with, just as they’re going to continue to criticize aspects of our foreign policy.
But I think what he wants to see is, is this moving forward. Can we demonstrate that there’s a process of normalization that is moving forward both in terms of U.S. nongovernmental activity and outreach to the Cuban people, but also our consultations with the Cuban government, our ability to cooperate with them on certain issues, our ability to work through the issues associated with setting up embassies.
So as long as we see forward motion here, we know there will be setbacks, there will be things that we strongly object to that the Cuban government does, but if the general direction of our policy is yielding change, increasing engagement with the Cuban people, that's something the President I think is going to feel very confident and positive about.
Q Could you tell us at what event today President Obama and President Castro will be in the same room together with the opportunity to exchange greetings, shake hands?
MR. RHODES: The only events that they’ll be together today are the arrival ceremony associated with the summit, and then the leaders dinner. So they’ll be in the same room for those events. It's possible certainly that they’ll see each other there. I would not anticipate an extended discussion between the two leaders tonight. If that happens it's going to happen tomorrow. But they’ll be together with the other leaders at the arrival ceremony and the dinner tonight.
The President will also be with other Cubans earlier in the day when he’s at the Civil Society Forum. He’s speaking to the broad Civil Society Forum, which has included both strong, independent critics of the Cuban government, but also supporters of the Cuban government. And then he'll be having a roundtable discussion, the President will, with a number of civil society representatives from across the region. And that will include Cuban participation as well as other countries. He'll be joined at that civil society roundtable by the leaders of Uruguay and Costa Rica.
Q I have three questions. First of all, is there something that the President is waiting for to either request or accept a bilat meeting? Does something have to happen? Is there something that he’s waiting for? Is too early something that would be good or bad, or is that considered?
MR. RHODES: I don't want people to kind of overthink this in the sense that a lot of this is just about the fact that we'll be setting up discussions with other leaders on the margins of the summit tomorrow at the same time that there are ongoing plenary discussions. So a lot of this is -- it's not conditional on policy. It's how do we work through the ability for him to have discussions with a variety of different leaders in the context of that summit.
So we'll keep you updated on timing, but it's a good question in the sense that, no, he’s not conditioning a discussion with Cuba on some breakthrough on a certain policy issue.
Q And I was going to ask about Venezuela. Venezuela has been very loud about gathering signatures, bringing them to the summit to ask the Obama administration to withdraw the executive order. Has this administration actually communicated directly to the White House to ask for that? Or is that kind of just a lot of just chatter that that administration is making?
MR. RHODES: Look, there’s always a lot of chatter out of Venezuela. The fact of the matter is we’ve been very clear that our criticism of Venezuela has been focused very specifically on a set of human rights concerns and actions and is not suggestive of some U.S. desire to overthrow the Venezuelan government, number one.
Number two, we have had a chance to have a dialogue with them. Tom Shannon, who has a lot of experience in the region, very senior official at the State Department, was able to go to Caracas, meet with Venezuelan officials, have a discussion in advance of the summit.
And then lastly, President Obama, from the beginning of his time in office, made it clear here in Latin America that he’s not focused on or interested in having a bunch of ideological debates that have shaped the polities of the hemisphere in the past. We can argue ad nauseam about what took place in the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s. There’s all kinds of different ideological perspectives on that.
What he’s focused on is what type of practical cooperation can we forge in the hemisphere, and then how can we make sure that generally the hemisphere is moving in the direction of greater democracy, greater development, greater collaboration. So that’s going to be our posture as it relates to Venezuela and all the other issues on the agenda.
Q And then, finally, on Brazil, I understand that the Brazilian President (inaudible) respond during the summit to the U.S. invitation to come back and visit D.C. Has she responded yet? Do you have an answer from her?
MR. RHODES: I don’t think we have a specific answer, but he’ll certainly be talking to Dilma Rousseff tomorrow. She’ll be one of the leaders that I’m sure he has a discussion with at the summit and on the margins of the summit, and one of the issues will be a potential visit. So we’ll keep you updated on any timing announcements.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll just do two more and then we’ll call it a wrap.
Q Great. Thank you, Ben. You said that the deal that President Obama announced almost four years [sic] ago is bearing fruit. In your opinion, do the Cuban people have more freedom today than they did on December 16th, a day before the deal was announced?
MR. RHODES: So you said years, but it's months. Okay, so, look, I think that the Cuban people are more hopeful about the future than when this was announced. There are a number of Cubans who were released from prison -- political prisoners who were released in December and January; as a part of that agreement, the Cubans took the decision to release individuals whose cases we had raised with them. That was clearly a positive development.
I do think you see greater energy within Cuba around issues of civil society, and discussion and debate. So I think the trend lines are positive with respect to how the Cuban people are looking at their future and our ability to engage the Cuban people.
Cuba is not going to change from a closed one-party state to a liberal democracy overnight, nor would we expect that to happen. So this is going to be a process over time. But in our view, the trend lines are positive. That doesn’t mean that there are not things that concern us. And we said it on December 17th, there were going to continue to be incidents that take place in Cuba that we would find cause to criticize, that we fully expected that. But we want to make sure that our engagement is pushing the trends in general in a positive direction for the Cuban people, and for the United States and the Cuban government to figure out ways to address our differences and cooperate in areas of common interest.
Q So (inaudible) -- you would say if the Cuban people have more freedom today than they do -- than they did, rather, on December the 16th?
MR. RHODES: I mean, I don’t want to suggest -- yes, I think they are better off in terms of the people who are released from prison, in terms of their optimism for the future. But I really don’t want to suggest that we believe Cuba has somehow transformed itself over those last four months. This is going to be a very long process of normalization, and the reforms and evolution that’s going to take place on the island is going to play out over time.
The question is, are our policies going to make it more likely that that evolution moves in a positive direction for the Cuban people, that brings them greater opportunity, greater human rights. We believe that the trends show that, yes, they are moving in a more positive direction. But that in no way means that there are not still practices in Cuba that are entirely inconsistent with how we support universal human rights around the world.
Q And just one final one, on Iran, if I may. In the past two days, the White House put out a tweet which seemed to parody in some way a Iran bomb diagram that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed in a speech that he gave at the General Assembly of the United Nations. In your view, that tweet, is this effective diplomacy as it relates to Israel?
MR. RHODES: Well, I guess what I’d say is, first of all, obviously the United States and Israel have an unshakeable alliance that is rooted in shared interest, shared values, and is on display in our security cooperation, in our diplomatic cooperation, and a range of issues.
I don’t think it's a secret to anybody in this room that the United States and Israel have had very sharp differences as it relates to these Iran negotiations, with respect to the first agreement that was reached and with respect to this framework. Prime Minister Netanyahu has issued very strong criticisms of this deal, as have members of his administration. That’s entirely his right. But we’re also going to issue strong defenses of this deal. It would make no sense for us to essentially not make our case because of disagreements that have been expressed by the government of Israel. And we have these conversations in private with the Israelis as well.
The fact of the matter is -- that was a very specific question. If you look at the graphic that Prime Minister Netanyahu held up at the United Nations, it spoke to an accumulation of stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. And the fact is that stockpile has been eliminated under even the first step agreement. And the stockpile of lower-enriched uranium is going to be almost entirely eliminated as well, as a part of the comprehensive deal -- 97 percent -- just as we’re also aiming to cut off the various other pathways to a nuclear weapon that Iran could pursue.
So I don’t think anybody should be surprised that the United States and Israel, despite our very strong alliance and friendship and cooperation on many issues, are going to continue to be public in terms of expressing our views of the Iran deal. And we’ll be making our case, just as Prime Minister Netanyahu and his administration have regularly made their views known.
Q Can you tell us what other bilateral meetings the President might be having tomorrow? (Inaudible.)
MR. RHODES: So I definitely expect the President to see and meet with President Santos tomorrow. That, too, again, the timing we’ll have to be more specific with you as the summit events unfold. But he’ll certainly talk to President Santos.
President Santos has been very supportive of the President’s announcement on Cuba. Frankly, we are also now increasingly engaged in supporting the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC. That includes discussions that are being hosted in Havana. And our new envoy to those peace talks has traveled to Havana as part of those discussions to provide support to the Colombian government.
So I think that the peace process with the Colombian government and the FARC is indicative of a potential transformational change in the region that could take place in ending one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, if not the world’s longest-running conflicts. And Cuba has played a constructive role in that process. And that speaks I think to how Cuba’s relationship with Colombia and the Colombian government has evolved.
So I think President Santos will be supportive in any way he can of progress in U.S.-Cuban relations. And he is somebody, again, who -- we share a deep history and shared values with Colombia as a democracy in the hemisphere. I think it points to the fact that it’s entirely consistent to stand up for and support democratic values and also to believe that engagement with governments that act inconsistently with those values is a better way of promoting positive change and promoting the human rights we care about here in the Americas.
Q On Venezuela, has he offered to --
MR. RHODES: Oh, I'm sorry, I was so focused on Cuba. No, not that I’m aware of. I think that clearly also associated with their ongoing efforts with the FARC, and obviously being neighbors, they have had concerns, differences with the Venezuelan government, but have also pursued dialogue with the Venezuela government.
I’d expect President Santos to be supportive of dialogue, but also supportive of, as he has been in the past, a process in the region whereby different countries can support a dialogue within Venezuela to include the government and the opposition that can help stabilize the situation. Because I think what is of broad concern in the region is the potential economic impact that could be associated with growing instability inside of Venezuela. And I think that that provides a strong basis for the countries to have an interest in stability. And I think stability does depend on a dialogue and a process within Venezuela that can lower tensions.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
Q Hillary is going to announce on Sunday. Will the President support the former Secretary of State or the White House staffers who are going to work for her?
MR. EARNEST: Let me start by saying that I think that after an hour and 15 minutes, this concludes the most focused Summit of the Americas briefing that's ever been conducted in the history of the Summit of the Americas. So let me compliment all of you on that and let you know that we welcome your interest.
I had read those reports about a possible campaign announcement over the weekend. We'll wait and see what happens.
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