State Department Press Briefing - Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow - Summit of the Americas

Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Only the Cuba portions, fascinating exchange and absolute media obsession! Click here to watch the entire briefing.

Office of the Spokesman

For Immediate Release
April 7, 2009

On-The-Record Briefing

Ambassador Jeffrey S. Davidow on the upcoming Summit of the Americas

April 6, 2009

Washington, D.C.

MR. AKER: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s our great pleasure and privilege today to be able to introduce Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, who is the Special Advisor to President Obama for the Summit of the Americas, which will take place later this month in Trinidad and Tobago.

QUESTION: Hi. Do you expect Cuba to be an issue at the summit? Do you not want it to be an issue? And what will you do to see that it’s not an issue? Are you getting pressure from other countries to bring it up? And do you think Cuba should be a participant in the summit?

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: Well, to answer your first question, no, I do not think Cuba should be a participant in the summit. This is the fifth summit. And from Miami, you will recall that the summit – the first summit was in 1994 and it was a celebration and in a way it continues to be a celebration of the profound change in this hemisphere as compared to many periods in the past when the hemisphere was marked by undemocratic governments.

In 1994 at the first summit, it was a unique – up till that time, a unique moment in time because every government represented there had been elected, was democratic. And here we are, 15 years later, and that trend of democracy has continued. Cuba was not at the first summit. It still remains an undemocratic state. The United States still hopes to see change in Cuba that at some point will allow Cuba to rejoin the inter-American community. But it will not be at this summit.

Now, will Cuba be discussed, which was your other question. This is an open meeting of 34 heads of state. I don’t think one can dictate what is going to be discussed, particularly in – as I mentioned, there’s one meeting which is a private meeting just of the heads of state. In a way, we believe that it is not – it would be unfortunate if the principal theme of this meeting turned out to be Cuba. As I’ve told you, I think there are a lot of very important issues that warrant discussion, whether it’s the economic issue, social inclusion, the environment, public safety. We would prefer, obviously, to focus on what we have been preparing for, but there is no effort on our part to try to stifle conversation on any topic.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Cuba. If you just said that the U.S. is looking for dialogue, then why not include Cuba if you want to open better relationships with the continent?

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: Well, we are obviously interested in having the best possible relations with – you know, with countries that you had mentioned, Venezuela and Bolivia, and other countries. Our relationship with Cuba is a complicated one. It’s a complex one, and I don’t intend to dissect it here.

But the fact of the matter is, is that the United States seeks and would like to see and would hope that others in this hemisphere would like to see a Cuba which affords to its people the same kind of minimal rights which almost every other country, indeed every other country that will attend this summit, does afford to their people as a – as democratic nations.

So I don’t think it makes sense to try to compare Cuba and Venezuela or Ecuador or China or what have you. The fact of the matter is, is these have different histories, different backgrounds, different political situations, and we just have to be realistic about that.

May I – I’ll continue – okay, you, sir.

QUESTION: Dan Dombey, Financial Times. Two questions, if I may. First, would you view the President’s longstanding pledge to get rid of the restrictions on family visits to Cuba as just a humanitarian – just a – justifiable on humanitarian grounds, or is there also an element to which that improves relations with the rest of the continent?

And secondly, the President also, of course, on his trip is going to Mexico ahead of the Trinidad summit. Can we expect any more deliverables in terms of the relationship with Mexico, or should we be content with what we’ve just got in the last couple of weeks in terms of –

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: Well, look, I think our policy with Mexico is fairly well established. The President and the Secretary of State, indeed the whole cabinet, have made it clear that our relationship with Mexico is of the highest priority. We have programs of support for Mexico, the Merida Initiative, which are on their way into being implemented. The level of cooperation between the United States and Mexico is higher than it ever has been in a whole range of issues, but in – particularly in terms of law enforcement. And Mexico is, as you can see, daily in the newspaper making very strong efforts and successful efforts.

On the question of relaxation of some of the restrictions in our policy towards Cuba, the President has said while he was in campaign and has been repeated since and the Secretary of State has said that – and the Vice President most recently in Chile, that we can expect some relaxation and changes in terms of the restrictions on family remittances and family travel. And as the Vice President said in Chile when he was down there, this does not include a lifting of the embargo.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah, just more broadly on Cuba policy, is the Administration hopeful that, you know, the changes that have been going on there and changes in the – you know, the Cuban-American population or organizations – is the Administration hopeful that these can – will help bring about a closer relationship up – perhaps upgrading to an embassy, the interests sections, that kind of thing?

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: Well, I’m not going to comment on domestic politics here. The fact of the matter is that for all of the reportage and speculation about changes in Cuba, the fact remains that the situation in that country as it relates to the freedom of its own citizens does not seem to have changed with the departure of Fidel Castro from the presidency, at least the formal departure, and the advent of his brother.

What I think is very important in talking about Cuba is that we should view Cuba in the context of this hemisphere, which, as I said, is a democratic hemisphere. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s when governments in this hemisphere were run by military dictatorships, when there were countries with political prisoners with no free press, Cuba, though special, was not totally unique in terms of human rights. Now, it is clearly the odd man out. As I say, there is no government in --

QUESTION: Are you talking about Cuba under Batista or under Castro?

QUESTION: (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: I’m talking about both.

QUESTION: Okay. But so --

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: And I’m glad you recognize that there’s not much difference. That’s your point.

QUESTION: What – okay, so if that’s the case, and things haven’t changed and you don’t want to comment on internal politics, why ease the restrictions? Why --

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: The President has said, made the point that he wants to allow Cuban Americans to have, as a matter of both moral – a moral matter and the question of elemental justice, to have more contact level --

QUESTION: Does the Administration see that as a way to bring change if more money is going in, if there are exchanges --

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: The President has said that he thinks that Cuban Americans are the best possible ambassadors --


AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: -- of this – of our system when they visit that country.

QUESTION: And what about the idea – there are moves afoot on the Hill to lift – to allow all Americans, not just Americans with families in Cuba to go – what is – what’s the Administration’s position on that?

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: I think that’s an issue still to be debated. But right now, what the President is looking at is – and I can say this because I know; I’ve read his promise in his May speech while he was a candidate in Miami that there will be lifting of restrictions on the question of – or a lessening of the restrictions on remittances and travel.


QUESTION: Jeff Mason with Reuters. Two follow-ups on two issues that have just been discussed – first on climate change, can you give any more details on what kind of preparatory work towards Copenhagen might be done at this summit? Will there be any bilaterals specifically on that issue? Are there any specific goals you’ll be looking for?

And second, on the issue of Cuba, just broadly, what will the President tell his fellow participants about the U.S.’s strategic review of that relationship?

AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW: Well, on climate change, I would direct you to, you know, the special negotiator for climate change. I don’t think that we should expect specific outcomes – negotiating outcomes from this summit. It’s not the time and place, it would seem to me, when you get heads of state together. I’m sure that the President will mention it and the desire to cooperate, but that cooperation will be taken care of at other levels and not at the summit.

In terms of Cuba, I think the President will say that, you know, we are engaged in a continual evaluation of our policy and how that policy could help result in a change in Cuba that would bring about a democratic society there. I don’t think he’s going to be in any way unwilling to discuss that. As I said, however, there’s a very long agenda of topics that we think are quite important, that other governments think are important, and it would be unfortunate if the conference spent more time on that topic than it would have to.

Why don’t I take just a couple more questions? Well, I’ll keep going and – did I – yes, sir.