Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Briefings for and at the Summit

April 19, 2009


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I would, Jeff. And I think that we had a lot of reporting in the run-up about how there would be this big clash. We didn't see that. Saw a lot of run-up about how there will be a lot of fighting over Cuba. We didn't see that. Because frankly I think the President set a tone in making clear that there are certain things that all the people represented here today hold in common, and it's the one thing -- it's one of the things that Cuba doesn’t have, namely, democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of association.
And so some of the worries that people set up didn't materialize. I think that's because the President came down with a very senior team -- not necessarily represented in this room. (Laughter.) He came down with a very robust agenda on issues that are of intense mutual interest: security, narcotics trafficking and energy and climate. So I think the President wanted to -- as he made clear in his opening statement -- look forward, not look back, not get dragged into these stale debates of the past that marked for him and for many of us social studies projects in high school, but now these are actually people's lives that are in the balance. And I think they had a very workmanlike, work-person-like summit.
Q Speaking of Cuba, was there any discussion today -- can you tell us if there was any discussion today in the SICA meeting? (Central America Immigration System)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The word was never uttered in the room.
Q Which word?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Cuba. It didn't come up in the SICA meeting at all.

April 18, 2009


Q Yes, Denis, still on Cuba, coming into this Chavez and some of the others were insisting there have got to be changes, we've got to talk about lifting the embargo in the final summit communiqué. Are there going to be any changes or is that going to be exactly as it was negotiated all along, as you said?
MR. McDONOUGH: I don't anticipate any further changes in the communiqué. I haven't seen the most recent draft -- I don't know if Dan has. I think it's fair to say that there's a disagreement on Cuba and the President was clear on that.
April 18, 2009


Q We were told this morning, on Cuba, that the President was asked about this issue and was pressed by South American leaders to try to do more. I just wanted to see -- two quick points. Now that you've had a little bit of time to assess the developments over the last couple days, is it clear from the White House how you're viewing what Castro has said? Is this a breakthrough? Are you still in a wait-and-see mode?
MR. GIBBS: Well -- and I'll let these guys discuss what was said in the meeting -- and I'd reiterate what I said a second ago and even some yesterday on the plane.
The President believes, and believed throughout the campaign, that we should change our policy; at the same time, understanding that what some in the hemisphere and in this region want is also -- has to be up to the actions of the Cuban government.
I've said this, the President has said this throughout this trip, that if the Cuban government and people in this region desire greater freedom for the Cuban people, the Cuban government is free to take those actions. The Cuban government can release political prisoners. The Cuban government can stop taking money from remittances that -- and money that's being spent -- sent back into their country. They can do more on freedom of the press. There's a lot that the Cuban government can do to demonstrate its responsibilities and its willingness to change that relationship, as well.
I think the President is -- believed that the action that he took had to be taken and is pleased with the reaction that it's had thus far.
Q Are there any next steps for the U.S. government, though, beyond waiting to see what Cuba does on those points?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as we said earlier this week, we will continue to evaluate and watch what happens. We're anxious to see what the Cuban government is willing to step up to do. And I think the President believes that significant action has been taken, and by all accounts, Cuban Americans are planning for the first time in a while to travel back to Cuba and see friends and family that they otherwise wouldn't have been afforded to do except on a very minimal basis.
Q So the ball is still in the Cuban court?
MR. GIBBS: It always has been. It always has been. They --
Q But especially since Monday?
MR. GIBBS: Well, but even before Monday. I mean, you know, the -- you know, I can only imagine what you guys might do if the President gave a three-hour speech about -- about the care and concern for their people --
Q Is it fair to say since Monday's moves, you're looking for something reciprocal?
MR. GIBBS: But I think that -- hold on -- you know, but even before the President outlined changes in our policy related to Cuban Americans' travel and remittances, the Cuban government was and still is capable of making change.
I'm sorry, Major, what was your thing?
Q I'm saying, since Monday you're looking for more signs of reciprocation since the White House took some definitive moves toward liberalization of the relationship. It would seem natural to suspect that you would want them to take moves now in light of those actions.
MR. GIBBS: I think that's very fair to say. I think the -- I think as much as it's been a topic over the last few days, I think -- as I said earlier, actions are always going to speak louder than words regardless of how long those speeches are. And I think it's -- we're anxious to see the actions of the Cubans. As Denis and Larry said, the smiles and handshakes and the desire of one leader to say to the President that he wants to be his friend, again is a wonderful opportunity to match actions with words. And the President and others in the administration will be anxiously awaiting those new actions….
Q There was a question during the campaign about whether words matter. We're hearing very different kinds of words now from the Castro government. Does nothing change at all?
MR. GIBBS: I think the "words matter" might have been over a slightly different topic, but I'll indulge you on this instance. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks for that, and I'll indulge you in your sports analogies.
MR. GIBBS: Maybe we'll do this discussion in, oh, say, Ohio.
Q But -- so we're hearing very different rhetoric, very different kinds of words from the Castro government. Does this change nothing, though, in terms of the U.S. posture? I mean, are you saying then that nothing has changed, that you --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I don't --
Q -- even before you wanted to see action, now you want to see action --
MR. GIBBS: Well --
Q Does this change nothing in relationships?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- look, I think -- I think it does -- I think we've certainly changed the relationship. I do think -- and I said this yesterday on the plane -- I think we have been and there have been instances in what was said over the past 48 hours that have struck us as a change in their rhetoric. I noted this off of a story that Raul Castro said that they were human beings and they could be wrong. That was most assuredly taken note of and discussed within our administration. We think that was a change in their rhetoric that we haven't seen in quite some time and one that certainly bears more investigation and more looking into on our side.
Do you want to add anything?
MR. McDonough: Yes, you know, I'd just say that -- as long as we're looking back a little bit -- the President has been talking about some of these steps that have been announced over the course of the last five days for two years now, and they're steps that the President has taken because he believes they are in our interest. He also believes that we ought to get out of the business of regulating contact between families, particularly after the difficult hurricanes that we saw in Cuba last fall.
The opportunity for family members to support their family members on the island in a way that gives them some of the basic, everyday needs, as the President talked about last night in the opening address, is something that he believes is a fundamental moral value, but is also something that is in our interest.
And he'll continue to evaluate the situation, the words, as Robert said, the admission that the Cuban government could be wrong. And he'll continue to evaluate that, but he'll continue to make decisions about these particular policy matters based not on what the Cuban government does or says, but based on what our interests dictate.

April 18, 2009


There was discussion of Cuba. This was brought up by more than one of the Latin America Presidents. There was a general appreciation for the steps that the President has announced and for his words last night. The President -- and there was some expression, as well, that these countries would like to see us go further, particularly in relation to lifting the embargo.
The President responded that he understands the importance of Cuba for Latin America. He said we are on a path of changing the nature of our relationship with that country. He said that change will not happen overnight. He is interested in dialogue but not talk for talk's sake. He said that everything that we do in relation to Cuba is informed by a real concern for democracy. And he made the point that the members of UNASUR are all democratically elected, and that democracy and the rule of law for the people of Cuba, in his view, is or should be a concern for them -- that is, the other leaders, as well….
Q Thank you, hi. I'm Laura Meckler, from The Wall Street Journal. I have two questions. One is, in his conversation about Cuba, did the President -- did President Obama at any point ask them to use their influence with the Castros to get them to make some sort of substantive move in response? And my second question is whether President Chavez was at this meeting, if there was any further interaction between he and President Obama?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First question was, did the President ask for any specific action on the part of the other countries vis-à-vis Cuba. The answer is the President talked in general terms about how everyone in the room was democratically elected, the goal of rule of law and democracy, respect for human rights is what motivates our policy in Cuba, and that he hoped that he would have cooperation from them in this….
Q Did Obama receive any requests from any President yesterday about going a little bit quicker and further on the Cuba issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's clear that, at least speaking of this meeting this morning, that in my view -- although it was not expressed by every one of them -- but I think all of the Presidents there would like to see us move expeditiously to lift the embargo.
Q When the President was discussing the U.S. goals for Cuba and talking about how a democratic Cuba is in everybody's best interest, what was the reaction by the other South American, Latin American leaders in the room?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think he -- the question is was there a particular reaction to the President. I think at that point actually, that was -- he was responding to comments that had been made, and so that was sort of the last word on Cuba. So there wasn't a specific response to what he said….
Q Would you say that Cuba took up 50 percent -- what percentage of the session did the discussion of Cuba take up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, I think it was one of, I don't know, maybe 20 percent --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it was one of multiple issues. In fact, it wasn't really the focus, it's just that it did come up.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It came up, but it wasn't -- they didn't spend all their time talking about Cuba. They talked about cooperation, they talked about other issues. It was there, but it wasn't dominating. In fact, no one issue dominated.
Q Two questions. The President said and you reiterated that he came to listen, as well. So when he hears these leaders talking about lifting the embargo or moving to do it more expeditiously -- is he listening and does it affect his position, is my question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can't speak for the President on that. I think he's laid out -- I think the best place was last night -- laid out his thinking on taking an initial step. He'd like to see the nature of the relationship change. This is going to take time. I think we have to see what kind of further steps are taken, including from Cuba, perhaps including from other countries.
Q One of the President's talking points these days since Mexico City, but also last night, and according to what you said at the meeting this morning, is that other countries in Latin America, instead of just being upset with the U.S. for imposing the embargo need to also look at the policies that the Cuban government imposes on its people that are behind the embargo. And I'm wondering what kind of response the President got when he talked about the fact that Cuba is not a democracy, for instance.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, this question was asked earlier, and the point was that the President's comment came at the end of a point or points made about Cuba by other speakers. It was a back-and-forth. And his comment was more by way of summary, in which he said, look, what guides us is our concern for democracy; you are democracies, as well, and we think that that should be a concern for you.
Q And there was no response?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the conversation did not go back and forth in a staccato manner. We moved on to another topic; I can't remember what it was.
Q Well, what about in other discussions that you and the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I did not hear the brief on other discussions.
Q Did the President -- did the President give any indication of where this relationship with Cuba now stands in terms of -- we've had Castro's comments, we've had reaction from the United States. Are there now -- did the President indicate or did anyone ask what happens next? Are there meetings planned or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, nobody asked that, and I don't have an answer for you. I think everybody realizes that we're taking some initial steps here, and let's see what happens.
Q Can you say there's a different standard for trade with Cuba than, say, with China? You say what guides us is the concern for democracy; we have enormous trade with China, but certainly they're not a democracy.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, our relations with the -- each country in the world are a product of our history, our domestic politics. I think if you're arguing for consistency, it's something that we strive for but don't always reach. And that's, you know, that's obviously the case. And so, no, I'm not going to enter into a philosophical discussion.
Q Well, does the embargo still have more to do with politics than with diplomacy?
Q Come on. You could tell.
Q You actually could, yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I probably could. (Laughter.)
Q You're uniquely qualified to do that, I think.
Q When you say -- when you say the President wants dialogue, do you think the President might go to Cuba soon to speak with the Cubans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. There was absolutely no discussion of that….
Q Did the discussion get past kind of microphone rhetoric -- did anybody bring an actual message from Cuba?

Q And on Cuba, the President has said for some time that Cuba has to take concrete steps for the U.S. to engage more with Cuba. Does that position still stand, that Cuba has to take those additional steps or concrete steps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I think what we are is at a beginning, an initiation of a new process. The President has been clear that our goals are to see a democratic Cuba. He's also been clear that there are many issues that we have that we could discuss with Cuba -- human rights being one of them -- but there are other issues that relate to just the nature of a relationship between two countries in the same hemisphere. Migration, for instance, is a big issue that I don’t believe we've had recent talks with Cuba about.
So, no, there's no concrete benchmarks that have been laid out. What we're talking about is a process here….
Q The President has been asking for help to -- the other countries to participate in this process towards Cuba. I would like to know what kind of help can they offer. Do you expect, for example, Brazil to be a mediator, a facilitator, or what kind of support?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There is no request on the table by the President for any other country to be a mediator.
Q But when he speaks about helping, well, what does he mean?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think when he speaks about helping is the concern that we have that we live in a hemisphere of democracies, and for many of the countries, including many of the countries at the table this morning -- although he did not say it this way, I'm not putting words in the President's mouth -- they've lived through periods of dictatorship themselves and have a real understanding of what it means not to have a free press and open discussion and political parties and what have you. And that experience, perhaps, should in some way be reflected in how they deal with another dictatorship.
April 18, 2009


Then the CARICOM brought up the issue of Cuba. The President reiterated what he had said in his remarks earlier in the evening, in terms of his interest in a new relationship with Cuba, but making clear that he's made his first step in terms of significant promotion of a new policy in terms of the lifting of restrictions on remittances and travel of Cuban Americans that you're very familiar with by now. And that now what we need to see is change coming from the other side.

April 17, 2009


Q Following up on that, almost every speaker aside from the President called on the U.S. to stop its embargo of Cuba. And I know you've -- all of you have said in the last few days you'd like this summit not to be about Cuba. Is it, though, by way of what the leaders have already said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think it's just started, obviously, and as I said I think the President believes that this is a very good opportunity to get to take advantage of all these heads of state and heads of government in one -- one location. And they have an awful lot of work to do.
And, Jeff, I think the President made very clear that we hope to see a new day in relations with Cuba. He reiterated what he has said in the past -- namely, that he believes and is very much open to his administration engaging with the Cubans, or with Cuba, on a variety of issues, and he enunciated that tonight.

April 17, 2009

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Q What's the reaction to the comments that Raul Castro made last night?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- I think the strongest reaction that we've all had is the admission by Castro that they might well have been wrong. I think we were particularly struck by that.
But I think you guys have all heard the President talk, and the American people have all heard the President talk about this notion of a greater engagement of the Cuban people at a time and place of our choosing if that engagement could further our national interest.
He took some concrete steps, probably the first and most decisive steps in the past two decades to change our policy with Cuba during the past week by lifting travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and lifting restrictions for remittances. And I think he is -- that was keeping a campaign promise to change the policy -- to begin to change the policy with Cuba.
So -- and I think -- I mean, largely, I just don't think that this notion of engagement is anything that's a surprise to us because it's something that we've talked about.
Q Where does it go from here, based on any reaction to what he said? Does it change the state of play at all?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as I said last night, I still believe -- and as you heard the President say last night -- there are actions that the Cuban government can take beyond wanting to have any dialogue with the American government. They're certainly free to release political prisoners. They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments as they come back to the Cuban island. They're free to institute a greater freedom of the press. There are a number of things that they're -- that they can and, we believe, should do to bring greater freedom to the Cuban people. And the President will address some of -- Cuba in his remarks tonight during the opening ceremony.
Q Robert, Castro said we have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we're willing to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners -- everything. Two questions on that, following up what Peter said. Simply put, does President Obama believe him? Does he take Castro at his word?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think the rephrasing of the question changes my answer. Again, I think we were most struck by a few statements later saying they're human beings; they could have been wrong. That certainly stood out and struck us. But greater engagement at a time and place of our choosing has been something that the President has talked about for almost two years.
Q The President spoke yesterday about wanting to see signals from Cuba. Does this count, that kind of word?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we sent a signal earlier this week about our desire to change the policy. It was more than just talking for talking sake. It was change in relating the way Cuban Americans are able to travel and send money to their family and friends in Cuba. As I said yesterday, and as the President said, there are some concrete actions that the Cuban government can and should take, as well.
Q One other on this. When he says he's been communicating -- Cuba has been communicating in public and private, can you explain that at all -- how the two nations have been communicating?
MR. GIBBS: Occasionally the Cuban government gives lengthy speeches. I don't have any information on private communications….
Q One more question about Cuba. The President's remarks tonight -- are they in response to Raul Castro's remarks of last night -- were they written before?
MR. GIBBS: The bulk of the speech was. I'll check and see if anything has changed as a result of that. But the steps that the President had desired to take on Cuba had been out there for quite some time.
Q How did the President find out about Raul Castro's comments?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know who did; I'm sure somebody just showed him one of the stories.
Q Thank you.
Q Robert, does the President think the trade embargo has been -- has served its purpose?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think there's -- you could certainly debate the effect of the embargo, and I think the President is less concerned with the debate about the past and more concerned about how we move forward in our relationship. But, Mark, again, I would -- this is not a one-way street; this is a very busy two-way thoroughfare. And the steps that can be taken by one country can also be matched or met by steps taken by another country.
So this is -- this is a responsibility that each government has to its people and to the greater world community. And we hope that each nation is willing to understand those responsibilities and act on them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Q We were told that President Obama spoke with Lula, the President of Brazil, today. Do we know what they talked about? The Brazilians are saying that they talked about Cuba. What else?
MR. RESTREPO: President Obama had a conversation with President Lula of Brazil today where they talked about the Summit of the Americas, on issues that may arise at that summit, and the need to work together to ensure that the summit remains focused on a positive agenda, a common agenda on these issues that are of paramount importance to the people of the Americas.
They had a lengthy conversation that touched on a host of issues -- I'm not going to go into great detail -- but the thrust of the conversation that they had was on how do we make sure that the summit engages pragmatically on the issues facing the people of the Americas today and how can we work towards forming effective partnerships on a host of issues to start the hard work of making progress on, again, the economic -- dealing with the economic crisis, on energy and climate future, and on issues related to citizens' safety.
Q Can I follow up on that? Who initiated the phone call?
MR. GIBBS: I think we did….
Q Are you guys worried that Cuba could overshadow or hijack the agenda?
MR. RESTREPO: No. I think we're -- we -- sorry -- I think the issues that face the Americas today, particularly the economic crisis and the effects of the economic crisis, are going to be the principal concern of the vast majority of the countries and leaders who come to the summit, will be the principal focus of the conversations -- in addition to those that are the summit topics, the original themes of the summit, obviously set before the economic crisis. So I think the real focus -- as evidenced by Vice President Biden's trip, Secretary Clinton's to the Americas, Secretary Clinton's trip here and other places in the Americas today -- people are focused on how do we deal with the economic crisis, how do we ensure that Latin America doesn't end up in another lost decade, and how to ensure that the economic growth that comes from recovery here reaches all levels of society. We're confident that that's going to be the principal issue of discussion at the summit. Other issues will be discussed, but I think the primary focus will be on the challenges that face the region today.
MR. GIBBS: And Chuck, let me -- I assume you've seen a transcript of what the President -- the President was asked about this -- the administration promised and took decisive action, making considerable changes in travel and remittance policy for Cuban Americans as it relates to Cuba. If there's going to be discussion about next steps, I think as the President said, the ball, so to speak, is probably in a different court.
If there are those that are serious about openness and freedom and any other concerns that might be enumerated by other leaders that attend this summit -- seeing an increased freedom of the press; seeing a release of political prisoners; as Dan and I talked about the other day in announcing the policy, seeing the Cuban government walk away from taking a hefty portion of remittances that do come back to the island; allowing citizens to travel, as the President said.
We'd be interested to know what the leaders in Cuba and what leaders that might be coming to the summit with that issue on their mind, what they're willing to do and talk about with those in order to demonstrate that there's a willingness to see something happen on the other side. I think that could actually produce something that's worthwhile as well….

Q Robert, back on Cuba. Just to pick up on what you said, the ball being in someone else's court. I just want to make sure I understand -- in Trinidad-Tobago will the President say his administration is not going to make any more moves regarding liberalization of relationships with Cuba until there are definitive actions by the Cuban government on the things you've outlined, and that no amount of pressure or jawboning or complaining; and the advocates who will be there speaking on behalf of the Cuban government could change that policy?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'll do this, then I'll have Dan do this, as well. The administration and the President have taken significant steps. We certainly continually evaluate the foreign policy of the United States. I think the President was pretty clear in the campaign about the steps for further action that needed to happen in order for us to believe that there was a seriousness on both sides about a different sort of relationship.
Again, I think the steps that the President took -- I don't want to minimize the steps that he took in this process, and I think, again, you know, we talked a little bit about, in the announcement, opening up of communications, including satellite television. To use my "ball in the court" analogy, if the government in Cuba -- I don't know why the government in Cuba would feel threatened by the free flow of information from other countries to their citizens. I don't think it would threaten the Cuban government for somebody in Cuba to be able to watch one of its pitchers throw a baseball game.
And I think if -- I've finally worked my baseball analogy into a serious policy answer. I'm altogether fairly pleased about that. (Laughter.) But, again, I think that we will see and judge the seriousness of this versus the rhetoric of this based not simply on the actions that we've already taken but by the actions that others can and, we believe, should undertake….
Q Can I follow on that. The President, Hugo Chavez, say that he would veto the declaration of the summit because it made no mention of the exclusion of Cuba from the summit. How serious do you consider that threat to be?
AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: The declaration of the summit is a document, a fairly lengthy document that's been negotiated for the last nine months by all 34 countries, including Venezuela. It's been a laborious process of negotiation. Many of Venezuela's points were accepted, as were the points of the United States and other countries.
This decision to -- as announced -- to not sign the document is something that just came up in the last day or so, and is inconsistent with the negotiations that have been going on for almost a year.
Q Can I just follow-up on that specific point -- it's just that Nicaragua and Bolivia have also said that -- because the document doesn’t talk about the lifting of the embargo, that they wouldn't sign.
MR. McDONOUGH: As Ambassador Davidow was saying, the declaration process -- these declarations on some occasions have been signed by the member states at the summit, and other occasions they have not been signed by the member states as a group.

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