Background Briefing (Cuba Portions Only)

Saturday, April 18, 2009
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: 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.

Yes.

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?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I really can't tell you.

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?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Is it the President's intention to actually read the book that was offered by Mr. Chavez? And --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, what?

Q Is it the President's intention to actually read the book that was offered by Mr. Chavez? And I have another one on Cuba.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President is a very well-read man; I don't know what his reading list is, though.

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.

I guess -- I think we're done? Okay.

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