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EU Lifts Restrictive Measures on Cuba

Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Roundtable with Spanish Press
Washington, DC
June 23, 2008

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: -- I will give a copy of the U.S.-EU Summit Declaration which has some useful language on Cuba. The only reason I bring this down is because this was done on June 10th during Summit negotiations and I think it kind of anticipates a bit the discussion that took place in Brussels. The third paragraph on page four talks about Latin American and Caribbean [inaudible] benefits of democracy. Then it says “We encourage democratic processes in countries of the region consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter] [inaudible] political rights and urge the government to ratify the covenant and demonstrate its commitment by unconditionally releasing all political prisoners. We will work together to support human rights and democratic values [inaudible] society and we continue to exercise the freedom of expression throughout the region.”

As we negotiated this in the context of the U.S.-EU Summit we thought this was a very positive and forward looking development. We expected to be able to carry that into the discussions on, the EU’s internal discussions on restricted measures. We, of course, are waiting for the EU communiqué, but it is our understanding from our consultations with our EU partners that as the EU made the decision to lift the restricted measures, it also set a series of benchmarks that it would be using to gauge or measure the progress made in the dialogue with Cuba, very similar to what you see in the U.S.-EU Summit. In other words focusing on the release of political prisoners, the importance of human rights, meeting the commitments made in the covenant on political and civil rights, plus a variety of other components such as free access to the internet.

I did an interview on Friday that appeared in El Pais on Sunday that noted that obviously from our point of view we are not rushing to embrace a government that we consider to be still trapped in a dictatorship, but we recognize and understand the interest that the European Union has expressed in finding a way to address the controversy within the EU around the restricted measures which have been suspended since 2005, while at the same time holding to a commitment to political change that recognizes the importance of democracy.

So in that regard we think that the benchmarks that the EU has set or that we understand they have set, we are still waiting for the announcement, but we think the benchmarks we understand they have set are the right benchmarks, they are good benchmarks, and they I think underscore a shared commitment both in terms of the United States and the European Union on the importance of releasing political prisoners, protecting human rights, and looking for a way to convince the Cubans to begin a process of political opening and national dialogue in Cuba that will lead to some kind of democratic transition.

Another, I think, important aspect of the events that took place in Brussels is that we have been seeing over the past several years a greater involvement of all of the EU countries in the debate about Cuba. Historically, Spain has dominated that debate. But what we have seen over the past several years is that nearly all countries are involved, and they are involved not only at the level of their government but also at the level of their political parties and within a broader European inter-parliamentary process. I think this has created a very rich debate, a lively debate within the EU, and I think the result of it is a balanced result. More importantly, it is a result, because it reflects a consensus within the EU which kind of sets – it makes it easier for us to approach the EU diplomatically because we know we’re dealing with a position that reflects a consensus across the EU. That is important.

Finally, I guess the third point I would make before I open it for questions is that the criticism that Fidel Castro leveled at the EU I believe yesterday or the day before where he declared the decision to lift the restricted measures hypocritical. And he said that effectively the EU would not focus on human rights if it was attempting to argue with the impunity of those who would turn Cuba over to the imperialists, in other words, the democratic opposition. I think that probably tells you all that we need to say about that EU decision. In other words it was viewed so harshly in Cuba by Fidel Castro there must be something good to it.

QUESTION: It seems that you have said that now is a bit different. That was the position of the United States about the decision of the European Union to lift the sanctions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: We understand the decision better. Obviously, as I mentioned, if the decision were left to us we would not have lifted the restrictive measures because, as I mentioned, we are in no rush to embrace the government of Raul Castro. However, we understand that the EU is a conglomeration of nations that is trying to find a common [inaudible].

QUESTION: Of course we are speaking like it is a United States official. I just want to make sure because this is different, what you say is different what --

QUESTION: [Inaudible] saying we are not going to rush to recognize the government of Raul Castro [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: We recognize that the EU as a group of many countries is trying to fashion a policy that moves the political needs of each of its members, and that there has been a lot of pressure building, political pressure building in some of the countries in the EU to respond positively to the kinds of economic changes that we have seen in Cuba up to this point, and there has been an argument made by some that the EU needed to show that it could respond positively to this because they saw in these economic changes the beginning of larger social and political changes.

So as the debate within the EU has tried to shape a position, the compromise that they developed, it appears, is that they would lift the restricted measures, recognizing that they have already been suspended for three years. They would lift the restricted measures, agree to a dialogue with Cuba, but in the process identify clear benchmarks related to political prisoners and human rights and other things, and then also have a kind of a review component that would allow the EU to review its progress after a year to determine whether or not this kind of dialogue would work.

That has not necessarily our approach, but again, the important thing I think is that -- The goal of Cuban diplomacy is to split the U.S. and the EU, and we should not play into that game. I think both sides should recognize that we share a common democratic vision for Cuba’s future and that while we might have differences of approach or differences of timing in our approach, that it is important for our diplomacy to highlight where we share values and share concerns.

QUESTION: So maybe that means that United States recognizes something is moving in Cuba.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: There is no doubt. The question is what and where it is moving towards. What we have not heard yet from Raul Castro or any of those around Castro is any articulation of the purpose or the vision behind the changes that have taken place so far. I think that’s what many people are waiting for. That is what we are waiting for. Trying to figure out okay, what is the purpose of this? What does all this mean? How are we supposed to understand?

QUESTION: So it seems that they are taking steps but without no frame.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I am sure they have a framework, they’re just not sharing it. My own view --

QUESTION: Not the frame that the United States and Europe want.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: My own view is that number one, this is a conservative government that is all about control. They recognize they are at a dangerous moment as they make this political, psychological, cultural transition from Fidel Castro to whatever else. Secondly, that the mode of government is different. That it is more collegial in the sense that while Raul Castro is obviously a first among equals, that he has to govern through building coalitions and alliances within the party and within state structures. Which is different than how Fidel governed. And third, that they face I think significant internal pressure to improve the daily life of Cubans.

And that what we think they are beginning to do through the reforms that they have outlined is attempt, number one, to address the issue of internal pressure for change by showing Cubans that change is possible, change can come, even if it is small and incremental. And secondly, in their trying to use these changes externally to try to send a message of change and in the process hope to attract people to them as they start this change process. So that I think is the mentality.

But as they start working these changes, it is kind of like walking down a dark alley. They are not quite sure where these changes go. I think they are very concerned about hitting a tipping point without knowing it. So what they do is they announce the changes and they stop and wait to see what the reaction is. They do a few more, they wait. It is like somebody walking down [inaudible]. So this is a process that is going to play itself out over time, but we’re not quite sure where it goes.

QUESTION: Then there is of course, apart from the intentions of the Raul government there is the big question mark how much or how less is Fidel himself in control. How does this work, the policy? I suppose even the U.S. government does not know exactly how much or how less he is still in control. This can change the whole thing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: We do not know how much. He is obviously still a presence. The fact that he can come out and criticize the European Union decision means he’s still a voice.

QUESTION: If we believe that Castro [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: It is just very hard for us to comment. That might be one of the reasons [inaudible]. Or it might be one of the reasons why there has not been an articulation of the purpose. Maybe the articulation of the purpose will be something he could not accept. But that’s all speculation. We really don’t know that for sure.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] European Union [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Spain is an important player, as I mentioned. Although I think this is a debate that involves all members of the EU. And for us, if Spain wanted to claim a victory that is the victory it should claim. That it has made Cuba an issue that is of interest to all the European countries, and in which all members participated vigorously. Because as I noted, this is a decision, knowing that it is a consensus decision at the EU, knowing that it has the support of countries that traditionally and historically have been strong supporters of democracy and human rights in Cuba, like the Czech Republic and others, means that this really does reflect the views of these countries and it makes it easier now for us to deal with the EU on this issue because we know this is a [inaudible] issue.

We could claim this as a victory. So it is important not to get too involved in who wins and who loses here. It is important to stay focused on the real diplomatic goal which is making sure that the United States and the European Union are running and going in the same direction.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. closer to [inaudible] changes in its policy [inaudible] sanctions?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: No. What we have done up to this point is that the President has signaled in his speech in October of last year and his speech of May of this year, that we are prepared to use existing authorities [inaudible] Helms Burton to license the sale of computers and software to Cuba, to permit the inclusion of cell phones and gift packages, and to include Cubans in larger scholarship programs that we have for Latin America as an effort to send a clear signal to the Cuban people that we understand that they want kind of a better life on a day to day basis. That they want more access to information, that they want easier access to information, and they want to be able to connect beyond Cuba through the internet, through their computers, through their cell phones, through their education, and that we are prepared to help them.

QUESTION: So in other words despite the lifting of sanctions there has been no change in the U.S. approach towards Cuba.


QUESTION: Diplomatic terms.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: You mean in terms of who’s lifting sanctions? The European Union?

QUESTION: Yeah, the European Union.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, our approach is, we’ve signaled where we are going, how we want to address changes in Cuba and our willingness to respond to the changes in Cuba, through very discreet steps the President has taken. But more broadly our argument has been that when you engage more fully with Cuba we want that engagement to be part of a larger transformation through the society. We don’t want to engage merely to engage.

QUESTION: It sounds a little bit of a contradiction because at the same time you are praising the European Union for lifting the sanctions, you are --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I am not praising them for lifting the sanctions. We would not have done that. Okay? But we recognized that there was [inaudible] given that the political challenge that the EU faced, give the membership within the EU and the different points of view of the EU. What we are praising is the diplomacy inside the EU that preserved the focus on human rights, political prisoners, promotion of democracy as the [inaudible]. Am I clear? I want you to understand. We are not praising for lifting the sanctions, but at the same time --

QUESTION: [Inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: The benchmarks are solid and we think this preserves our common values and our common interests.

QUESTION: But there is a difference between what you say and the White House; “We are disappointed,” said the White House. The Washington Post.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: In terms of? Read the whole sentence.

QUESTION: It seems they were talking about the lifting of the sanctions by European Union.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: They probably were disappointed in the lifting of the sanctions, but what I am saying is sometimes you are disappointed by things you cannot stop. But what is important is what lies underneath it, the benchmarks of the approach. I do not want to confuse anybody.

QUESTION: This maybe have something to do with that it is possible Mr. Obama is going to be the next President of the United States -- [Laughter].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I think the President has spoken very clearly in terms of his approach to Cuba. So we consider, what I am articulating today is an articulation of the Bush administration approach. We do not anticipate [inaudible].

But it is important to recognize also, if you listen to the candidates, they will talk about there are some differences in terms of how you manage the relationship between Cubans outside of Cuba and Cubans inside of Cuba. But during the campaign all the candidates had a very clear focus on promotion of democracy inside Cuba. It is a very American approach [inaudible].

QUESTION: It is a very international approach to promote democracy inside Cuba all over the world, but there are some differences between the way to promote democracy.

QUESTION: -- making the comparison, you understand somehow the view of the European Union in [inaudible] understanding a new President of the United States trying to relax some of the steps that restricts visit family or that is what Obama is saying. He would, this very restrictive traveling possibilities that are now on the Senate. This would be, you would not view that as a break from the policy [inaudible] these measures?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I really cannot talk about what somebody else might do in the next administration.

QUESTION: But part of the exile --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: What you’re talking about is a very real debate that’s going on right now. There is legislation in front of our Congress now that will change our laws and regulations governing travel to Cuba. It is a constant debate in our society.

QUESTION: Cuba [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I think [inaudible]. But --

QUESTION: -- Miami, the exiles, there are many people who think that those measures affect the family on both sides.

QUESTION: One of the [inaudible] was that the sanctions didn’t work. [Inaudible] the United States about [inaudible] sanctions? [Inaudible]? How successful it would be.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: You know, one of the challenges of totalitarian regimes is that when they change they change not necessarily because of an external dynamic but because of an internal dynamic. Because if you look at Cuba, you can make the argument that nobody’s policy worked. You can make the argument that our policy did not change Cuban behavior, but that policies of others to engage and have normal relationships and promote tourism and investment also didn’t work.

And so I think the question becomes how well you are positioned to respond to the opportunity to help Cubans themselves change Cuba. How well you are positioned to respond to an internal dynamic that is favorable to democratic change. And also the reality of ensuring that the policies are viable politically [inaudible].

And the reality is that Cuba is a domestic issue not just in the United States but in almost all the countries of Europe in some way or another. And many countries in Latin America. And so there is always this tension that [inaudible]. But ultimately our policies are the result of a historic relationship with Cuba, a response to a very specific set of events, and there are policies that have survived through many administrations and many congresses. It does not matter if it is Republican or Democrat. They have endured. And in this country that’s remarkable. They can do it because there is a broad consensus that we will engage with Cuba if we have a chance to help Cubans change their society, but we won’t engage with Cuba just for the sake of engaging.

[Inaudible] answer your question [inaudible].

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Thank you all very much.

Released on June 27, 2008

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