Monday, April 13, 2009

White House Statement and Briefing on Family Travel

The text of the White House Statement on family travel can be found here:

The intellectually dubious reasons for taking a morally proper action can be found in the White House press briefing below.


April 13, 2009

PRESS BRIEFING BY PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS

AND DAN RESTREPO, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT
AND SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS

MR. GIBBS: Before we do our regularly scheduled program, I’ve got a short announcement. And I am joined for the bilingual portion of this announcement by Dan Restrepo, a Special Assistant to the President and a Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.

Today, President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country’s future. The President has directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce to carry out the actions necessary to lift all restrictions on the ability of individuals to visit family members in Cuba, and to send them remittances. He’s further directed that steps be taken to enable the freer flow of information among the Cuban people and between those in Cuba and the rest of the world, as well as to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian items directly to the Cuban people.

In taking these steps to help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and to promote the increased flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people, President Obama is working to fulfill the goals he identified both during his presidential campaign and since taking office.

All who embrace core democratic values long for a Cuba that respects the basic human, political and economic rights of all of its citizens. President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality. He encourages all who share it to continue their steadfast support for the Cuban people.

MR. RESTREPO: Thanks, Robert. (Speaking Spanish.)

MR. GIBBS: And while we have Dan here, if there are some specific questions on this we’ll be happy to take them.

Q Is this a first step toward diplomatic recognition?

MR. RESTREPO: This is a step to extend a hand to the Cuban people in support of their desire to determine their own future. It’s very important to help open up space so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grassroots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future. The President promised this during the campaign and he is making good on that promise today to extend his hand to the Cuban people, to ensure that they have more independence from the regime and the ability to start working down the path that we all want to see them succeed on.

Q Does it mean between the two countries that you have diplomatic relations?

MR. RESTREPO: This is reaching out to the Cuban people.

Q So the answer is what?

MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, what was the --

Q I'm trying to find out if there's a movement towards the two countries getting together and having a diplomatic recognition.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in many ways that depends on the actions of the Cuban government. The action that the President took today is one that allows -- one that allows families to visit families, one that allows families to send back some of their hard-earned money to help their family members. And I think maybe the best way to sum this up is the way the President summed this up last year -- to say that there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. He said, and I quote, "It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime."

Q Would the President like to see an improvement of relations, where you actually have some sort of --

MR. GIBBS: The President would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that. But he's not the only person in this equation.

Q Robert, several Republicans from Florida are charging today this is a mistake because they think it's going to -- they're claiming that it will mean something like hundreds of millions of dollars in money that winds up in the hands of the dictatorship. How do you answer that charge? And is there a way that you can specifically structure this so that you make it more likely that the money that gets -- actually get in the hands of the Cuban people and not the dictatorship?

MR. RESTRETO: There's two answers. One is that we think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects that there may have; that creating independence, creating space for the Cuban people to operate freely from the regime is the kind of space they need to start the process towards a more democratic Cuba.

And also the President is very clear that we're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. It should stop charging the usurious fees that it does on these remittances. The call is very clear that that be done in addition to what we are doing.

But we are getting ourselves out. The Cuban government should get itself out of the way, and allow Cuban families to support Cuban families -- that creates the kind of space, in our view, that is necessary to move Cuba forward to a free and democratic Cuba.

Q In that same speech in Miami that you referenced, the President, as a candidate, said he would talk directly to the Cuban government without preconditions, but with a clear agenda. But he's also said that he's not going to lift the trade embargo because there are certain steps he wants the government to take that -- you know, and not give up that leverage first. So it kind of sounds like he's saying two things: first, it's talk without preconditions; then setting conditions in order for relations to move forward.

MR. GIBBS: And you may have something on this, too, but I think that -- I think the President has made clear that he is willing to talk to our adversaries. I think at the same time the President has said repeatedly that that is not talk for talk's sake, whether that's with -- well, whether that -- despite what adversary that might be.

But I think that the actions that were taken today are intended to, as I said, open up the flow of information, to facilitate that information from getting directly to the -- facilitate it getting directly to the Cuban people, and to set up a system whereby we see some results. And I think the President is willing to do that.

Q But are there conditions before he will engage the government directly or not --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I do think there are steps that we would -- that the Cuban government can and must take, and I think, as Dan said, the actions that the government undertakes regarding remittances should stop immediately.

Do you have anything to add to that?

Yes, sir.

Q Why are you and Dan making this announcement and not the President? I mean, he's here, right -- he's in the building?

MR. GIBBS: He is. He's -- I think he's in his office, yes.

Q Probably hearing the vibrations from the music.

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say, hearing the dance music, not unlike I am. (Laughter.)

Q Yes. So why isn't he making the announcement? Why -- I mean, it looks like as if you were trying to avoid having his voice and picture --

MR. GIBBS: I'll certainly try not to take any of that personally. (Laughter.) And I noticed the music stopped right as you asked. (Laughter.)

No, I mean, Chuck, I -- a few people showed up to today's briefing. I don't --

Q But this isn't a small talk -- this isn't a small change of policy. So having the President not talk to the camera about it seems to be a little like a political decision.

MR. GIBBS: No. Again, I'm standing in the White House briefing room as the spokesperson for the President of the United States. I assume that when you ask me questions when we get to pirates or anything else, that my answer won't seem less than what any President would make. As I undertake that task, the President is doing today what the President promised he would do, not only on camera, but in Florida many months ago.

So I think this is less about the so-called "choreography" of some announcement, and more -- has to do with the fact that the President is taking some concrete steps today to bring about some much needed change that will benefit the people of Cuba: to increase the freedom that they have, and more importantly, to allow Cuban Americans to see their families and to send them money.

Q Daniel, do you know -- is the Cuban government going to be represented at the Summit of the Americas?

MR. RESTREPO: They will not be.

Q Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q If you guys could just explain a little bit more about the part of today's announcement that deals with telecommunications firms being allowed to – I mean, what --

MR. RESTREPO: Certainly. We want to increase the flow of information among Cubans, and between Cubans and the outside world. And one of the ways we can do that under U.S. -- existing United States law, back to the Cuban Democracy Act, is to allow U.S. telecommunications companies to seek to provide services on the island. The licensing process has never -- never really went forward. We're allowing that process -- the President is directing that that licensing process go forward, and directing that the regulations system be put into place to allow U.S. persons to pay for cell coverage that already exists on the island -- again, so Cubans can talk to Cubans, and Cubans can talk to the outside world without having to go through the filter that is the Cuban government.

Q So just cell phones is what this is talking about?

MR. RESTREPO: This is cell phones, satellite television, satellite radio. This is forms of -- modern forms of telecommunication to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people so that if anyone is standing in the way of the Cuban people getting information it is the Cuban government, and it is not some outside technical problem that can be pointed to.

Taking away those excuses and putting -- and trying to create the conditions where greater information flows among the Cuban people, and to and from the Cuban people.

Q To follow up on that, if I may. So if this happens as it's intended to happen, is the idea that a U.S. company would be providing sort of U.S. television programming on -- beaming it in -- onto the island, is that the idea?

MR. RESTREPO: The idea is to increase the flow of information, be it what we see here in the United States -- the global marketplace of television and radio, to make that a possibility for the Cuban people and to ensure that the United States government is not standing in the way of that; to make clear that more -- we stand on the side of having more information rather than less information reach the Cuban people, and for them to be able to communicate among themselves.

Q But the Cuban government would have to allow it to move forward? I mean, they could stop this if they wanted to I assume.

MR. RESTREPO: The Cuban government could stop this and they -- could stop part of this, part of the providing -- allowing U.S. persons to pay for cell coverage and ongoing services on the island today is something that the Cuban government would have a very hard time getting in the middle of. In terms of allowing or disallowing U.S. companies to provide services on the island is something that would clearly require participation of those entities that control information on the island.

MR. GIBBS: I'm going to go back there in one second, but I want to add something to your original question, Chuck. I think one of the things that's important about today's announcement -- I don't know Spanish, the President knows a few words of Spanish, but I think what's important today is we're doing this in a way that is not just going to be heard by a few people. We're doing this so that Cuban Americans can hear it loud and clear the steps that the President is taking --

Q Don’t you try to send a message to the Cuban people, as well, and his image --

MR. GIBBS: Well --

Q -- would you argue is an important image to --

MR. GIBBS: Again, Dan is not going to take that seriously -- (laughter.)

Q -- no, but to beam into Cuba?

MR. GIBBS: It is, but I think what's important, too, is that that image that is beamed in there today is in a language that they can all understand and take heart in.

Yes, ma'am.

Q This announcement comes in the wake of the Summit of the Americas. And several Latin American leaders have been pressuring for strong change of policy to Cuba, and they think of the embargo and the acceptance of Cuba in the OAS. How much of this is pressure by Latin American leaders, and do you expect this to quell some of the Cuba attention in the summit?

MR. GIBBS: Well, this is a fulfillment of a campaign promise that the President made a little less than a year ago. So this is in no way designed to, or done in a way to quell so-called pressure. It's simply the fulfillment of what the President believed was right in 2007, right in 2008, and in 2009 he has the ability to change.

MR. RESTREPO: I'm going to do that in Spanish for her. (Speaking Spanish.)

MR. GIBBS: Sheryl.

Q Robert, a couple questions. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers -- some lawmakers are urging the administration to go even further and lift all travel restrictions for all Americans to Cuba. So how does the administration feel about that? And secondly, it's my understanding that the State Department has said the Cuba policy is under review, which would suggest that there may be further changes coming, and if you could talk about that and whether you view this step today as perhaps a prelude to further normalization or greater diplomatic engagement with Cuba.

MR. RESTREPO: It's important to focus on what is being done today. This is a significant step in reaching out to the Cuban people and supporting their desires to live in freedom. We understand that others have different views on how best to accomplish that. The President is very clear today that this is the step that he is taking to advance the cause of freedom of the Cuban people, to advance our national interest. This is a decision driven by our national interests and how best to advance it and how best to bring to fulfillment the promise he made.

He was very clear that when he made that promise that the best ambassadors for freedom was to begin with family; to allow family members to support family members, to allow direct humanitarian reaching out, because you know where it's headed. That's an important piece here, and it's the most direct means of opening the kind of space that is crucial for advancing the cause of freedom in Cuba.

U.S. policy towards Cuba is not frozen in time. It's not frozen in time today. These are the steps that the President believes makes sense to advance the cause of freedom in Cuba. Obviously, like all aspects of policy, you have to react to the world that you encounter. And so I don't think we should think of -- that we shouldn't think of things as being frozen in time.

Q Do you have a position on the travel ban, the overall travel ban?

MR. RESTREPO: The President believes that a place to start is with allowing Cuban Americans to visit family members, to support them through remittances, to extend the flow of -- free flow of information, and to allow people to send humanitarian packets that have the full range of humanitarian aspects to it -- allowing people to send clothing and fishing supplies and seeds and soap-making equipment that was stripped out of what was allowed a few years ago; allowing people to do that again, allowing people to do that to anyone on the island who is not a member of the -- senior member of the Cuban government or the Communist party.

Those are the steps that the President believes are the most effective, under the current circumstances, to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.

Q So you're saying this isn't frozen in time. How long will you give this policy a chance to work before reassessing it and maybe going further?

MR. GIBBS: We just did this a few minutes ago. Let’s -- (laughter.)

Q No, the President has set timetables for other policy reviews. Does he have a timetable for the --

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q -- this review?

Q In light of what has gone over the -- gone on over the last two days in Somalia, it proves that failed economies create failed states, Robert. Is the President thinking of any programs, especially for some of the more fragile economies in this region, whereby he might enhance the travel exemption for purchasing power for the Americans who travel there; increase that kind of flow, as well?

MR. RESTREPO: Yes, I'm not sure I fully understood the question. In terms --

Q We've got quite a -- Americans get quite a substantial tax exemption when they travel to this area. In fact, I think it's the best for Americans. Will the President, because of the situation now, the economy, will he look for enhancing that tax exemption to allow more purchasing power for Americans as they travel to that area?

MR. RESTREPO: And when you say, "that area," you're saying Cuba or the Americas at large?

Q No, I'm not saying Cuba. I'm saying for the Caribbean and for South America, which is very generous to begin with.

MR. RESTREPO: I think that the President in -- as we look to the Summit of the Americas at the end of the week, is looking -- understanding that the economic crisis and the effects of the economic crisis are being felt very hard around the hemisphere; understanding that U.S. economic recovery is a very important piece of hemispheric economic recovery; understanding that the steps that were taken in London at the G20 have important implications for the countries of the hemisphere; and ensuring that assistance and support gets to the most vulnerable aspects of society throughout the region.

He's focused on those things. As we head in towards the summit, you're going to see more of that. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but you're going to see a very clear focus on the most compelling issue facing the Americas today, which is the same issue facing us, of how do you deal with the economic crisis and how do you ensure that economic recovery reaches all levels of society.

Q So this may be on the table?

MR. RESTREPO: I guess I'll have to admit -- plead ignorance as to the specific of what you're -- to my understanding of the specific thing you're talking about now. But I think as the week unfolds you will see a clear set of policy proposals and ideas that the President is going to put forward to help the economy and the Western Hemisphere.

Q When you come to this country, you're allowed to bring, I think, $1,500 worth of tax-free, duty-free goods. Will that be increased? Will that level be increased to increase -- attract commerce?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think that's something that we're working on right now.

Mark.

Q Will you allow -- does this announcement allow direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba? How will Cuban American families get there?

MR. RESTREPO: The announcement puts in place or directs the Secretaries of Commerce, Treasury, and State to authorize those transactions necessary to make this a reality. There are charter flights that exist, which Cuban American families under the current, very restricted travel, have access to. Those, in all likelihood, will have to be expanded if there is an increase in demand for that activity.

Q You would allow a commercial airline right now to start --

MR. RESTREPO: There are flights that -- there are flights --

Q Charter flights, I know that, but --

MR. RESTREPO: -- charter flights now.

Q -- you would allow a commercial airline to start more regularly scheduled stuff or --

MR. GIBBS: I think that's exactly what he's instructed --

Q To look into whether to allow that to happen?

MR. GIBBS: -- to looking at the best way to do that.

Q Does the President want to see -- excuse me -- does the President want to see Cuba admitted into the Organization of American States?

MR. RESTREPO: The President looks forward to the day when a Cuban government that respects the basic principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter -- which are the rules that the hemisphere has come up with to govern itself -- abides by that. Everybody who abides by the Inter-American Democratic Charter should have a seat at the Organization of American States.

Q Let me follow up. The Latin American countries are going to be pressuring the American -- President Obama for greater normalization of relations. Is the announcement today an attempt to inoculate the President and the White House a bit from this?

MR. GIBBS: I think I answered that about four questions ago. The answer to that is no, because, like I said, Peter, this was a promise that the President made during the campaign I think in both of the years that we were a candidate. And it's fulfilling of that promise, not anything related to, as I said, so-called "pressure."

MR. RESTREPO: Do you want to do this in Spanish?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q Robert, could I ask --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on one second, we're going to do an OAS --

MR. RESTREPO: The OAS question in Spanish. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Un momento. (Laughter.) Pretty good, wasn't it? (Laughter.)

MR. RESTREPO: Actually, Robert, you can take over.

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter.) You just hit my limit on --

MR. RESTREPO: (Speaking in Spanish.)

MR. GIBBS: Wendell.

Q You said the President would look into the idea of allowing direct commercial travel, presumably for relatives. I mean --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no, what I said was -- what's that?

Q For relatives.

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the policy relates to Cuban Americans that have relatives in Cuba. I think what Chuck was asking was the -- no pun intended -- the delivery vehicle.

Q How they get here, yes.

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as Dan said, there are charter flights. I think they're -- in some of the stories I've seen travel agents in Florida talk about hearing from a far greater number of potential clients today, and in the previous couple of days, anticipating the change that the President announced today.

Q And the idea is that family travel might sustain direct, commercial flights between Miami and Cuba?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the answer to that is at current unknowable. But that is exactly why the President has directed the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Treasury, and the Secretary of Commerce to come up with plans relating to the lifting of these restrictions.

Q Do you guys have anything back there?

Q I have a question.

MR. GIBBS: Sure.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q After these steps -- the White House is waiting the Cuban government to do something similar towards this direction?

MR. RESTREPO: Everyone is waiting for the Cuban government to respect the basic human, economic, and political rights of the Cuban people; to release political prisoners unconditionally, not as a result of this decision, but as a result of complying with its basic international commitments. What the President has done today is to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire for the very same thing.

Q Can you repeat that in Spanish for us?

MR. RESTREPO: (Speaking Spanish.)

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me go back. Yes, sir.

Q There are economic implications to your announcement. I would bet that on Wall Street right now airline stocks are through the roof, and so are telecommunications.

In this first step, are there any other economic implications in this announcement?

MR. GIBBS: You're looking for a stock tip? (Laughter.) You just gave us two, for goodness sakes. (Laughter.)

MR. RESTREPO: Right. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Can you buy --

Q I'm the Washington editor from -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Maybe you can. (Laughter.)

MR. RESTREPO: The thrust here, again, is reaching out to the Cuban people, and making sure that the United States government isn't standing in the way of their desire to live in freedom, making a clear call to the Cuban government to also get out of the way, and to support that basic desire. The implications, kind of one way or the other, may distract from the central premise here, which is support for that day that everybody wants to see, where the Cuban people get to decide the future of their own country.

Q Now, translate that into financial talk. (Laughter.)

MR. RESTREPO: I'm bilingual, not trilingual.

MR. GIBBS: That would be inexplicable to virtually everyone here.

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