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A Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People

Thomas A. Shannon, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
May 20, 2008

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2:00 P.M. EDT 

Thomas Shannon at FPC

MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Thank you for being with us today. Today, we have Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon to talk about a Day of Solidarity with the Cuban people. We also have, joining us via DVC, Jamaica, Cuba, and Guatemala, so welcome as well. Thanks.

Assistant Secretary Shannon.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Good afternoon and thank you all very much for taking the time today to be with us. Very briefly, tomorrow, May 21st, we will be celebrating a Day of Solidarity with the Cuban people. This day will feature a variety of events around town and elsewhere in the United States to celebrate the Cuban people and to celebrate their aspirations to be part of a free and democratic nation. President Bush will be speaking tomorrow at the White House and I'm sure he will have some very important and encouraging words for the people of Cuba.

Very briefly, in regards to this day, the purpose of the day is to acknowledge that the Cuban people are the protagonists of political change in Cuba, and that we here in the United States want to underscore our support and solidarity for them as they look forward to their own future and attempt to find the means and the mechanisms to play a role in transforming their own society into a free and democratic Cuba.

U.S. policy towards Cuba focuses on the development of and the promotion of a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. We believe that it is the Cuban people themselves who will build this peaceful democratic future. But as they attempt to do so, we believe it is important that the Cuban Government create a political space that allows the Cuban people to express themselves in a free and democratic fashion. And for this reason, one of the focuses of our Day of Solidarity with the Cuban people will be on political prisoners, on the plight of political prisoners in Cuba, but also on the importance and the necessity of the Cuban regime freeing those political prisoners.

Ultimately, we believe that for a political transition in Cuba to be peaceful and enduring, there has to be some kind of broad comprehensive national dialogue about Cuba's future in which the Cuban people can participate. And we believe that for that dialogue to be meaningful, the fear factor really has to be removed from Cuban political discourse, and that one of the most dramatic ways to begin this process would be by freeing political prisoners and for the Cuban regime to make clear that it has enough confidence in itself and enough confidence in the Cuban people that it can begin a dialogue without using the secret police and security services as a moderator of political discourse.

And so we will use tomorrow to call for the freedom of political prisoners, to call for full compliance with human rights accords that Cuba has signed, most recently being the UN Covenant on Political Rights and - Political and Civil Rights and the UN Covenant on social, economic and cultural rights. And we believe that in an environment that promotes human rights, an environment that does not use the police and prisons to control political discourse, that Cuba would indeed be able to begin the kind of national dialogue necessary to chart a peaceful democratic course for its future.

Why don't I stop there and open this up to questions. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. We'll take a question here.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Are you going to moderate?

MODERATOR: Yeah.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Okay.

MODERATOR: Maria? Please state your name and news organization.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Maria Pena with EFE News Services. I was just wondering, a lot of people have put pressure on the U.S. Government to denounce human rights violations in China and, you know, the U.S. does have enormous trade relations with that. So obviously, you know, what is the difference between the U.S. foreign policy towards China and the - obviously, the fact that the U.S. continues to refuse to start a dialogue with the Cuban regime like even some Democratic presidential nominees are asking for?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah. We're not shy about denouncing human rights abuses in China. In fact, yeah, human rights continue to be a prominent part of our engagement with China. If the purpose of the question is to explore more broadly why there are differences between - between China and Cuba, a lot have to do with the countries themselves, but also the openness of China - of China to engage in an international environment, especially on economic, social and cultural lines that creates important openings for the international community and actually provides a space for the international community to engage with Chinese in a more open and coherent dialogue. That space does not yet exist in Cuba.

MODERATOR: Okay. We're going to try to go to Jamaica for our next question. Jamaica, are you there? (Audio break) - anything back yet from Jamaica, so let's have another question from Washington. Jesus.

QUESTION: Jesus Esquivel from Proceso Magazine, Mexico. It's going to be with regard to the Merida Initiative. Mr. Shannon, the Chair has just approved some kind of conditions for - release the 350 million they proposed for the first year of the Merida Initiative. What is the position of the White House with regard specifically to the conditions, (inaudible) and the fact that the Mexican Government is very sensitive with regard to the Mexican military personnel?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, I mean, as you know, the Congress is still in the process of working towards an appropriations bill, a supplemental bill that includes the Merida Initiative. The House has a version, the Senate has a version. This must go to conference. So we don't - we do not have in front of us a final language in regard to Merida. In regard - broadly speaking, in regard to conditionality, I won't refer specifically to Senate conditionality, but - but obviously, you know, the Congress has a responsibility to make sure that U.S. funds are being spent in a way that it feels appropriate, especially in relationship to our broad values and human rights being an important value. And - and so we respect that role.

That said, the United States and Mexico are facing a common challenge which we hope to be able to meet through the Merida Initiative, in which we both have to be accountable to each other. And so just as there is and always will be a degree of conditionality in terms of monies that are paid out to Mexico or other countries in support of Merida, we have our own conditionality to meet in regard to Mexico and Central America. And this means kind of fulfilling our side of the bargain, especially in terms of interdicting arms trafficking into Mexico and also fighting money laundering here in the United States in the transport of all currency.

So I would argue that ultimately, as we look at issues of conditionality, what we need is language that promotes partnership and promotes accountability.

QUESTION: But as far as you hear, the Mexican Government is already saying if there is any conditions, they're going to say thanks, but no thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah. Well, again, the Merida initiative is an important initiative for the United States and Mexico. And I believe that working with our Congress, we'll find a way to make this successful.

MODERATOR: Okay. Another question on Cuba, please?

QUESTION: Diana Moliniari TV Marti. The Cuban Government accused, recently, the United States Government of intervening in the political affairs internal with helping the dissidents. I have two questions. One, what could you say about this? And second, doesn't - is this not a signal exactly of the (inaudible) that there is really no way to hope that at the moment, the political prisoners are going to be free, that - or the situation is going to improve?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, the accusation is not new. I mean, the United States has a well known policy of humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, especially to political prisoners, to families of political prisoners, and to dissidents. And we will continue that practice and policy. And that practice and policy has undertaken a way that meets the rules and regulations established here in the United States.

In terms of hope, I think there's great hope for Cuba and great hope for Cuba's political prisoners. And that's really what tomorrow is about. It's about showing broad solidarity with the people of Cuba and making it clear that as we look forward towards a democratic future for Cuba, we believe that the ultimate drivers of that future, the ultimate protagonists of it will be the Cuban people.

MODERATOR: Sonia?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sonia Schott with Radio Valera, Venezuela. Mr. Shannon, is it impossible to talk about - on Cuba without mentioning Venezuela, a country which is supporting a lot the past and the current administration in Cuba. So that brings me to the issue when U.S. - a U.S. Aircraft overflow* the Venezuelan air space.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: This is a long ways around it.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) I just want to know, do you try -

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I'm impressed.

QUESTION: Is this the U.S. Administration trying to send a signal to Venezuela and to Cuba, too?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: In --

QUESTION: A message? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Congratulations. (Laughter.) You did it. Listen, in regard to the aircraft, it's important to understand that this was an aircraft which entered Venezuelan airspace mistakenly. It self-identified itself to Venezuelan air traffic controllers. It acknowledged its mistake and it immediately left Venezuelan airspace.

This was a navigational error, nothing else. And it's important to understand that the exchange of -- you know, between the pilot and the air controllers was a friendly exchange and that this kind of incident happens frequently in areas where there's lots of air traffic. I mean, just last week, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas had been in communication with the Government of Venezuela, pointing out a number of instances in which Venezuelan aircraft had violated U.S. airspace in similar circumstances.

You know, these are not hostile acts. These are not viewed with alarm by us. They're viewed as regular events in a crowded airspace and having open, good channels of communication that's necessary to make sure that everybody understands why these violations of airspace took place, and what we're doing to make sure that they - they don't occur.

MODERATOR: I'm going to give Jamaica another shot and see if they're on again. Do we have a question from Jamaica? (Audio break.) Take another question from Washington. Vanessa.

QUESTION: Mr. Shannon, it's impossible for me, as a journalist from Colombia, not ask you about this. I would like to know what's your reaction about the report of the Interpol on the computers of Raul Reyes (inaudible) Venezuela has said that they are not true. And you know more than me, so I would like to know your opinion about that. And especially what's coming next, I mean, like if that's going to help to include Venezuela in the list of the countries that support terrorism, it's going to be like another investigation, also Ecuador - Ecuador, which role is playing -- Ecuador in all this narco-terrorism situation and FARC.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, the Interpol report, I think, speaks for itself. I mean, Interpol determined that - that the hard drives in question did, indeed, belong to Raul Reyes. And they determined that they had not been tampered with. In other words, that's a pretty politically neutral determination. So in this regard, you know, we've been a little surprised by the vociferous nature of the response to Interpol by both Venezuela and Ecuador. But that said, we still have work to do in terms of analyzing the content of those hard drives, although I think the stories that have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and El Pais and elsewhere indicate that there is, indeed, a relationship between the FARC and Venezuela.

And as we have underscored elsewhere, as we look more closely at this and carefully as we try to understand better the relationship and its consequences, we would certainly urge the Government of Venezuela to make clear what the purpose of that relationship is and whether or not that relationship can be used in a positive way to help end a four-decade long civil conflict in Colombia or whether the countries involved are not prepared to stand with a democratic neighbor.

MODERATOR: Is it a follow-up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Let's ask (inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Go ahead, (inaudible.)

QUESTION: Telesur. As you mentioned, Mr. Shannon, the accusations are not new. But this time, the Cuban Government is providing evidence. Would you - would the State Department be willing to look into it and see if, indeed, Mr. Michael Parmly has been funneling money to Cuban dissidents?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, we're very aware of the behavior of our diplomats in Cuba and elsewhere. And let me just underscore that, that against, assistance that moves from the United States to Cuba under official auspices in this regard does so for humanitarian purposes. It really is aimed at helping dissidents and the families of political prisoners who operate under enormous stress in a society in which their loved ones have been locked away. They've oftentimes lost their jobs, their family members have lost scholarships and positions in schools and they really do face some tremendous hardships, both socially and economically.

And the kinds of programs we have are designed, first, to show these people that they're not alone; that although they are harassed and badgered in their own society, that internationally, the sacrifices they make are understood and appreciated. And secondly, to help them address the day-to-day issues of living in that kind of environment. You know, so I would argue that from our point of view, this assistance has a humanitarian purpose, not a political purpose, and that ultimately, it is something that is in keeping with our broader policy towards Cuba.

QUESTION: And a follow-up on Cuba and Venezuela: Any response from the State Department regarding the latest petition from the Venezuelan Government on the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I'm not aware that they've made an additional request. I mean, we still have outstanding requests. As you know, Mr. Posada Carriles's legal status here in the United States is still an open question.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have a question here from VOA. Up here in the front.

QUESTION: Do you want it in Spanish? English is fine. Mm-hmm.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: As you'd like.

QUESTION: As a follow up to the accusations by the Cuban Government, do you expect any concrete diplomatic action by the Cuban Government against the U.S. Interests Section in Havana?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, the Cuban Government has not communicated with us formally through Diplomatic Note yet. I mean, its communication has been publicly through press conferences. So at this point, I can say neither yes nor no to your question. We'll just wait and see how the Cuban Government chooses to communicate with us in terms of next steps.

MODERATOR: Vanessa, for your follow-up?

QUESTION: Yes. I would like to know, Mr. Shannon, if you have any news about the three American hostages or something is going on to get them released.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: In news, you mean in regard to their situation or circumstances?

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: We have nothing, nothing new at this point in time; just that, you know, we continue to do what we can in conjunction with the Government of Colombia to promote a successful and safe release of all hostages, the three U.S. hostages included. We continue to believe that the FARC practice of taking prisoners, kidnapping innocent people and holding them for ransom and for political purposes is abominable and we call on the FARC to release them.

MODERATOR: We have one last question here in Washington. If you'd permit, I'll ask the question, in case Jamaica is listening, but they just can't talk to us. There's a question from the Gleaner newspaper on Cuba. With Raul Castro coming into power in Cuba and the changes and policy shifts that he's making in the country, what is the U.S. Government view of the Caribbean nations that are attempting to or may, in the future, attempt to strengthen their relationship with Cuba?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Good question. In regard to other countries' relationships with Cuba, every country has a sovereign right and authority to determine how it relates with other countries. And it's not our purpose to interfere with that.

Obviously, Caribbean countries have their own interests that they need to look after in their relationships with their neighbors, Cuba included. However, our plea to our friends and partners in the region and those who do have diplomatic relationships with Cuba is, in the course of their relationships, to send clear messages that the international community expects and anticipates a democratic Cuba in the future and that release of political prisoners and respect for human rights is a common standard called for in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, called for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that these countries should not be shy about expressing the expectation that Cuba meet these commitments under international law and international treaty.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Shannon.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Thank you all very much.



Released on May 20, 2008

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