The planning committee for Durban II had selected Iran to preside as a Vice-Chair, Libya as Chair of the "Main Committee" running the conference and Cuba as the Rapporteur.
During the first Durbin conference in 2001, the U.S. delegation walked out, as then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said some of the language in the draft declaration and program of action constituted "a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism." Powell was referring to a 1975 General Assembly resolution condemning Zionism sponsored by Islamic States and Cuba, repealed in 1991.
MR. GIBBS: Well -- and I'll let these guys discuss what was said in the meeting -- and I'd reiterate what I said a second ago and even some yesterday on the plane.
The President believes, and believed throughout the campaign, that we should change our policy; at the same time, understanding that what some in the hemisphere and in this region want is also -- has to be up to the actions of the Cuban government.
I've said this, the President has said this throughout this trip, that if the Cuban government and people in this region desire greater freedom for the Cuban people, the Cuban government is free to take those actions. The Cuban government can release political prisoners. The Cuban government can stop taking money from remittances that -- and money that's being spent -- sent back into their country. They can do more on freedom of the press. There's a lot that the Cuban government can do to demonstrate its responsibilities and its willingness to change that relationship, as well.
I think the President is -- believed that the action that he took had to be taken and is pleased with the reaction that it's had thus far.
Q Are there any next steps for the U.S. government, though, beyond waiting to see what Cuba does on those points?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as we said earlier this week, we will continue to evaluate and watch what happens. We're anxious to see what the Cuban government is willing to step up to do. And I think the President believes that significant action has been taken, and by all accounts, Cuban Americans are planning for the first time in a while to travel back to Cuba and see friends and family that they otherwise wouldn't have been afforded to do except on a very minimal basis.
Q So the ball is still in the Cuban court?
MR. GIBBS: It always has been. It always has been. They --
Q But especially since Monday?
MR. GIBBS: Well, but even before Monday. I mean, you know, the -- you know, I can only imagine what you guys might do if the President gave a three-hour speech about -- about the care and concern for their people --
Q Is it fair to say since Monday's moves, you're looking for something reciprocal?
MR. GIBBS: But I think that -- hold on -- you know, but even before the President outlined changes in our policy related to Cuban Americans' travel and remittances, the Cuban government was and still is capable of making change.
I'm sorry, Major, what was your thing?
Q I'm saying, since Monday you're looking for more signs of reciprocation since the White House took some definitive moves toward liberalization of the relationship. It would seem natural to suspect that you would want them to take moves now in light of those actions.
MR. GIBBS: I think that's very fair to say. I think the -- I think as much as it's been a topic over the last few days, I think -- as I said earlier, actions are always going to speak louder than words regardless of how long those speeches are. And I think it's -- we're anxious to see the actions of the Cubans. As Denis and Larry said, the smiles and handshakes and the desire of one leader to say to the President that he wants to be his friend, again is a wonderful opportunity to match actions with words. And the President and others in the administration will be anxiously awaiting those new actions.
It's been fascinating to watch opponents of the CIA's use of "torture" during the interrogation of terrorism suspects proceed to, in the same breath, defend the normalization of relations with the Castro brothers in Cuba. The methods used by the CIA, such as water-boarding and sleep deprivation, are rightfully deplorable; but such methods pale in comparison to the treatment of peaceful human rights activists, independent journalists and other pro-democracy leaders by Cuba's repressive regime.
Where's the outrage?
But after saying his Administration would "engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from drugs, migration, and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform," [President Obama] veered off of his prepared remarks to push back.
"As has already been noted, and I think my presence here indicates, the United States has changed over time," he said, to applause. "And so I think it's important to remind my fellow leaders that it's not just the United States that has to change."
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.
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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But Castro's comments, taken as a whole, reflected no change in policy. They were made in the context of an extended anti-U.S. diatribe reminiscent of the harshest accusations by his brother and predecessor, Fidel. Raúl Castro spoke at a Thursday gathering of an "alternative" group of leftist Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- all of whom gave similar speeches denouncing the United States.
Castro recounted U.S. sins, from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the ongoing economic "blockade." He accused the United States of supporting and funding "mercenaries" who have been tried and convicted in Cuba, and then demanding their release as "so-called dissidents and patriots." As for the Organization of American States, he said, the only reason it waited until 1962 to kick communist Cuba out was because it hoped before then to overthrow Fidel Castro and install its own "puppet government."
What Cuba wanted, Raúl Castro said, was U.S. release of five "young heroes" convicted by a Miami jury in 2001 of spying for Havana.
"My reaction was, this was nothing new," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said of Castro's Havana speech. "This wasn't an overture at all." Even Castro's remarks about a dialogue, he said, were made "in an aggressive way."
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, everybody. Thanks for the chance to get together again. Happy Friday night. I think you just want to hear what happened with -- in the meeting of the heads of government, heads of state, before they went into the main hall and they were all accumulating there, as you know, so that they could be ceremoniously announced into the main hall.
So, basically, I think when the President arrived there was about 25 other heads of state or heads of government. The President arrived just a couple minutes after 5:00 p.m. They were supposed to -- everyone was supposed to arrive by 5:00 p.m. And during the time they -- the ensuing I forget how many minutes, say, 50 minutes or so, the President had an opportunity to talk with many of his colleagues from the region.
I know he was particularly eager to catch up with President Uribe of Colombia, Prime Minister Harper of Canada. He had good discussions with many of his -- about the economic crisis with many of his Caribbean peers. And as they were lining up in reverse alphabetical order by Spanish name, President Chavez was first in line, obviously. And over the course of several minutes, different -- the Trinidadian hosts lined up heads of states from each of the countries.
And during that time, the President -- as I say, President Obama, walked across the room and introduced himself to President Chavez, and President Chavez said a couple of things. Consistent with the policy I took some heat from Scott for yesterday, I will not read out what President Chavez had to say. But it was very, very short. The President shook his hand, smiled, and then went back to his position in the line.
While in his position in the line he also had an opportunity to greet President Bachelet of Chile. The President has developed a very good relationship with her over the course of the last several months, and the President was eager to meet her and was glad he had the opportunity to do so. He had a long conversation with President Lula, who, as you all know, he's also developed a very good working relationship with. And while they were all chatting, President Ortega of Nicaragua came in and introduced himself to the President. And I think President Obama said in Spanish, it was his "gusto" to meet him, as well.
Q Said what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was his "gusto."
Q His pleasure.
Q Ortega walked over to him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ortega walked into the room, in the back of the room, and since the President was at the end -- back of the line, he basically had to walk past President Obama, and stopped and introduced himself.
Q They shook hands?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They did.
And then, after that, they all went into the ceremony, which as you know, was lively.
Q One question. The web site from President Chavez said both leaders shook hands and Chavez told President Obama of his desire to change the relations between the nations. Does that correspond with your understanding of their conversation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't dispute that. And as I said, when President Chavez indicated that -- and not necessarily in the exact words, Mark, that you just read, but he did speak in English and say something to that extent -- President Obama simply smiled and went back to his place in the line.
Q Can you clarify where exactly was this happening? Was it literally right outside the room we were just in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'm not sure the name of the room. I'll get you the name of the room, but they're basically -- as you're entering into that main room, there was a conference room, another enclosed room on the left. I forget the name of the room. Actually --
Q That's okay.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But, in any case, so it was a closed room, and that's where the heads of states were to -- and heads of government were to gather.
Q And can you talk about what President Obama said and what his interest was in going over and making an introduction?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What he said to President Chavez? He said, "My name is" -- you know, he introduced himself -- (laughter) -- and shook his hand, and that's it.
Q He didn't have anything to say of any substance aside from introducing himself?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't say that he didn't have anything to say, Jeff. I said that he didn't say anything other than that.
Q I didn't mean that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay.
Q He didn't say anything besides, "My name is" --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he said, "Hello, I wanted to introduce myself." And they shook hands. And then President Chavez talked, and then, as I said, President Obama smiled and went back to his place in the line.
MR. HAMMER: It was the Jade Room, for those that want it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Jade Room was where they met.
Q I saw President Obama stand up on the dais and walk over to President Morales before the singing of the Trinidad and Tobago national anthem. So because they didn't see each other backstage, he was the only one I saw him go over to.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: President Morales was not in the Jade Room. So I think it's -- I have not spoken to the President about that and I didn't witness it, but it does stand to reason that the reason he wanted to go introduce himself is that he didn't -- had not had the opportunity to do so in the prior meeting.
Q Did you expect the harsh rhetoric from Ortega that was spoken at the summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the President laid out kind of what he expected and hoped in his remarks, and I think that his hope is and his expectation is that these debates of the past can remain that, debates of the past, and that the leaders can take advantage of this opportunity to focus on what they can do in the future to advance the interests of all the people of the hemisphere.
Q Following up on that, almost every speaker aside from the President called on the U.S. to stop its embargo of Cuba. And I know you've -- all of you have said in the last few days you'd like this summit not to be about Cuba. Is it, though, by way of what the leaders have already said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think it's just started, obviously, and as I said I think the President believes that this is a very good opportunity to get to take advantage of all these heads of state and heads of government in one -- one location. And they have an awful lot of work to do.
And, Jeff, I think the President made very clear that we hope to see a new day in relations with Cuba. He reiterated what he has said in the past -- namely, that he believes and is very much open to his administration engaging with the Cubans, or with Cuba, on a variety of issues, and he enunciated that tonight.
Q Any more updates on any potential bilateral meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, we -- have you guys walked through the schedule?
MR. HAMMER: They have the general on the multilaterals, but nothing on the bilaterals -- only that they'll be pull-asides, sort of impromptu meetings.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Yes, you know, obviously tonight's schedule has got a little bit up in the air now I think, but the President does have scheduled a bilateral with Prime Minister Manning, a multilateral with the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM. He has a multilat tomorrow morning with -- is tomorrow morning --
MR. HAMMER: UNASUR.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tomorrow morning with the countries of South America, and then a multilat on Sunday morning with Central American countries. Each of those will be open for a spray at the top, and then closed thereafter. So you will all see who they're meeting with.
And then the President is eager to try to find some time for pull-asides with, as I said, Prime Minister Harper, who we've been doing a lot of good work with, including on energy; President Uribe of Colombia; President Garcia of Peru; President Preval of Haiti; and President Bachelet of Chile.
Q But you still think that tonight's meetings will go on?
Q (Makes a face.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I share that sentiment.
Q Do you think those pull-asides you talked about will happen tomorrow or during Sunday maybe?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're trying to squeeze them into any open opportunity we have in the next two days.
Q Okay, so literally more of a pull-aside than a sit-down bilateral meeting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.
Q I was trying to follow the President's speech from the remarks that were sent out by the White House and it looked as though he added a couple of things about the American people needing some positive reinforcement and what have you. I was wondering if that was stuff he'd discussed or if that was just sort of off the cuff. You don't know?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did not discuss it, but I also don't believe it was off the cuff. I think it was a very thoughtful reaction to some of the comments earlier in the night, which I think we all thought were remarkable.
Q But had that been crafted in advance in case --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It had not, no.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good night, you guys.
Q Can you give us anything more on Ortega, on the conversation with Ortega?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Very short -- a very short conversation, as I said. President Ortega came up and introduced himself and they shook hands and the President said in Spanish that it was a pleasure to meet him. And that was it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay.
Q All right, thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, guys.
END 8:29 P.M. EDT
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Finally, we know that true security only comes with liberty and justice. Those are bedrock values of the Inter-American charter. Generations of our people have worked and fought and sacrificed for them. And it is our responsibility to advance them in our time.
So together, we have to stand up against any force that separates any of our people from that story of liberty -- whether it's crushing poverty or corrosive corruption; social exclusion or persistent racism or discrimination. Here in this room, and on this dais, we see the diversity of the Americas. Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path. But we all have a responsibility to see that the people of the Americans [sic] have the ability to pursue their own dreams in democratic societies.
There's been several remarks directed at the issue of the relationship between the United States and Cuba, so let me address this. The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba. I know that there is a longer -- (applause) -- I know there's a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day. I've already changed a Cuba policy that I believe has failed to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people. We will now allow Cuban Americans to visit the islands whenever they choose and provide resources to their families -- the same way that so many people in my country send money back to their families in your countries to pay for everyday needs.
Over the past two years, I've indicated, and I repeat today, that I'm prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from drugs, migration, and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform. Now, let me be clear, I'm not interested in talking just for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction.
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"It is tragically ironic that as Raul Castro says he is willing to talk about human rights, he has his state police surrounding peaceful human rights activists on a hunger strike. In fact, I just received a letter from the activist Jorge Luis García Pérez -- "Antúnez" -- in which he describes vicious beatings by the state police and the denial of medical attention for activists whose health is in grave condition. Some like to cling to a romantic notion of the Castros, but we cannot lose sight of these brutal facts. There is no indication that political prisoners are being released, free speech is being allowed or Cubans are being granted basic liberties that we take for granted. For the OAS to readmit a regime that engages in this type of systematic suppression of human rights, it would have to rip up its Democratic Charter as a farce."
# # #
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MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- I think the strongest reaction that we've all had is the admission by Castro that they might well have been wrong. I think we were particularly struck by that.
But I think you guys have all heard the President talk, and the American people have all heard the President talk about this notion of a greater engagement of the Cuban people at a time and place of our choosing if that engagement could further our national interest.
He took some concrete steps, probably the first and most decisive steps in the past two decades to change our policy with Cuba during the past week by lifting travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and lifting restrictions for remittances. And I think he is -- that was keeping a campaign promise to change the policy -- to begin to change the policy with Cuba.
So -- and I think -- I mean, largely, I just don't think that this notion of engagement is anything that's a surprise to us because it's something that we've talked about.
Q Where does it go from here, based on any reaction to what he said? Does it change the state of play at all?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as I said last night, I still believe -- and as you heard the President say last night -- there are actions that the Cuban government can take beyond wanting to have any dialogue with the American government. They're certainly free to release political prisoners. They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments as they come back to the Cuban island. They're free to institute a greater freedom of the press. There are a number of things that they're -- that they can and, we believe, should do to bring greater freedom to the Cuban people. And the President will address some of -- Cuba in his remarks tonight during the opening ceremony.
Q Robert, Castro said we have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we're willing to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners -- everything. Two questions on that, following up what Peter said. Simply put, does President Obama believe him? Does he take Castro at his word?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think the rephrasing of the question changes my answer. Again, I think we were most struck by a few statements later saying they're human beings; they could have been wrong. That certainly stood out and struck us. But greater engagement at a time and place of our choosing has been something that the President has talked about for almost two years.
Q The President spoke yesterday about wanting to see signals from Cuba. Does this count, that kind of word?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we sent a signal earlier this week about our desire to change the policy. It was more than just talking for talking sake. It was change in relating the way Cuban Americans are able to travel and send money to their family and friends in Cuba. As I said yesterday, and as the President said, there are some concrete actions that the Cuban government can and should take, as well.
Q One other on this. When he says he's been communicating -- Cuba has been communicating in public and private, can you explain that at all -- how the two nations have been communicating?
MR. GIBBS: Occasionally the Cuban government gives lengthy speeches. I don't have any information on private communications.
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White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday aboard the president's airplane that officials were struck by Cuban President Raul Castro's openness to admit change might be needed in relations with the United States.
Gibbs says President Barack Obama will address Castro's comments during his opening remarks at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Obama landed mid-afternoon on the two-island nation.
Cuba is not invited to the Trinidad and Tobago summit, leading Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to threaten to refuse to sign the
summit declaration this weekend in Trinidad and Tobago.
Concerned that Chavez would hijack the summit with the Cuba issue, the president called Brazil's President Lula yesterday from Mexico City to try to get them to keep the focus on the economy, security and other issues in which they can reach agreements.
According to a senior White House official, "The thrust of the conversation that they had was on how do we make sure that the summit engages pragmatically on the issues facing the people of the Americas today and how can we work towards forming effective partnerships on a host of issues to start the hard work of making progress on again the economic, dealing with the economic crisis, on energy, and climate future and on issues relating to citizens' safety."
Including what Cuba charges, the transaction cost for $100 becomes 35 percent. That's more than the 5.8 percent cost for money wired to Mexico and the 9.5 percent for the Dominican Republic, data from the World Bank show.
"We give thanks to those who wrote the letter to Obama, just as we thank senators Lugar and Delahunt, the [Congressional Black] Caucus and other influential members of Congress."
On the eve of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, Cuban President Raúl Castro declared Thursday that his government is willing to discuss ''everything'' with Washington, including human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press. Castro said Havana has ''sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public'' that it is open to talking about anything, as long as it's ``on equal terms.''
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How can any OAS member call for Cuba's inclusion when the group's charter -- agreed upon. by all 34 heads of state, including Castro's biggest cheerleader, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez -- sets out that "representative democracy is an indispensable condition for stability, peace and development in the region?"
"Why not talk about it?" Joaquin E. Ferrao, who was senior policy adviser in the State Department from 2005 until this year and was an alternate U.S. representative to the
OAS, told me.
"It's not a Republican issue. It's not a Democratic issue," said Ferrao, who grew up
in Miami. "If you look at the [OAS] charter, everybody has agreed: The peoples of the
Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have a duty to protect and defend it. It's a standard that the hemisphere has agreed on. It includes separation of powers, human rights, fundamental freedoms, and most importantly, the holding of periodic free
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PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, I don't think that we should dismiss the significance of the step that we took. We eliminated remittance restrictions and travel restrictions for Cuban Americans who have family members in Cuba. For those families, this is extraordinarily significant. For the people in Cuba who will benefit from their family members being able to provide them help and to visit them, it's extraordinarily significant. We took steps on telecommunications that can potentially open up greater lines of communication between Cuba and the United States.
And so I think what you saw was a good-faith effort, a show of good faith on the part of the United States that we want to recast our relationship. Now, a relationship that effectively has been frozen for 50 years is not going to thaw overnight. And so having taken the first step, I think it's very much in our interest to see whether Cuba is also ready to change. We don't expect them to change overnight. That would be unrealistic. But we do expect that Cuba will send signals that they're interested in liberalizing in such a way that not only do U.S.-Cuban relations improve, but so that the energy and creativity and initiative of the Cuban people can potentially be released.
We talk about the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba, but there's not much discussion of the ban on Cuban people traveling elsewhere and the severe restrictions that they're under. I make that point only to suggest that there are a range of steps that could be taken on the part of the Cuban government that would start to show that they want to move beyond the patterns of the last 50 years.
I'm optimistic that progress can be made if there is a spirit that is looking forward rather than backward. My guidepost in U.S.-Cuba policy is going to be how can we encourage Cuba to be respectful of the rights of its people: political speech and political participation, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of travel. But, as I said before, I don't expect things to change overnight. What I do insist on is that U.S.-Cuban relationships are grounded with a respect not only for the traditions of each country but also respect for human rights and the people's -- the needs of the people of Cuba.
And so I hope that the signal I've sent here is, is that we are not trying to be heavy-handed. We want to be open to engagement. But we're going to do so in a systematic way that keeps focus on the hardships and struggles that many Cubans are still going through.
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — As they wage rival campaigns in Kansas for the Senate, Republican rivals Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran say they agree on most issues.
But U.S. policy toward Cuba isn't one of them.
The two congressmen's sharply different positions were on display this week. President Barack Obama has announced that he's allowing Americans to make unlimited transfers of money and visits to relatives in Cuba.
Tiahrt said Obama's action rewards Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and his Communist regime. Spokesman Sam Sackett said Thursday that Tiahrt sees it as an issue of national security.
Moran spokesman Travis Murphy said Moran opposes the Castro regime but believes in open markets for Kansas agricultural products. Moran says Obama's actions didn't go far enough to promote those markets.
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Special to CNN
April 16th, 2009
On a recent April morning, I joined a group of former Cuban political prisoners and family members and human rights activists at a rally to voice concerns about human rights violations in Cuba, and to caution the Obama administration not to extend benefits to Cuba without the prior release of all political prisoners.
Days earlier, seven Democratic members of the House returned from Cuba having met with Raul and Fidel Castro. They gushed with praise for the Castros and their regime. But I, and many others, were profoundly disappointed that once again members of Congress traveled to this totalitarian country and failed to visit prisoners of conscience, all of whom are systematically abused, tortured, starved and degraded.
They failed to visit their harassed families. They failed to visit courageous human rights advocates like Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, "Antunez," who has been on a hunger strike since mid-February. The lawmakers failed to even attempt to see Dr. Oscar Biscet, a medical doctor and human rights reformer who has been treated with such wanton cruelty that he may not long survive.
When the tragic plight of political prisoners is ignored, suppressed, devalued or trivialized by visiting politicians, the bullies in the gulags are emboldened to further inflict pain on their prisoners
Sadly, only four days after the rally, the Obama administration took unprecedented and unilateral actions to increase travel and financial transactions to Cuba, with virtually nothing in exchange on the Castros' behalf. At a bare minimum, the U.S. should have insisted on reasonable liberalizations for Cubans traveling to the U.S., especially Cuba's abhorrent practice of holding back the children of Cubans traveling, in effect using children as hostages to guarantee the travelers' return.
By allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba, spending U.S. dollars on state-owned hotels, restaurants and transportation, President Obama has handed over a huge economic boon to Fidel and Raul Castro. Further, Obama's decision to permit Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives in Cuba also puts money directly into the pockets of Havana, since these remittances are heavily levied with Cuban government fees.
The State Department's 2008 Country Report on Human Rights Practices estimated that there were over 200 political prisoners in Cuba and as many as 5,000 citizens who served sentences without being charged with any specific crime. In the prisons, beatings and abuse of detainees and political prisoners, including human rights activists, are carried out with impunity. The report also cited "severe limitations on freedom of speech and press" as well as the denial of peaceful assembly, associations, movements, exit permits and freedom of religion.
Consider the cause of José Cohen, a former Cuban Interior Ministry official, who fled Cuba on a raft in August 1994. He testified at a congressional hearing I chaired several years ago, and told my committee that he has been trying to get his wife and three children out of Cuba, and to this day, Castro has refused to grant them permission to leave the island. Rather than the exception, the Cohens' plight is the rule.
Over the past 50 years, the Castros and their secret police have been directly responsible for killing thousands of non-violent, courageous pro-democracy activists and for jailing and torturing tens of thousands. And they continue to this day, to perpetrate their brutal crimes.
As far back as 2001, I have offered an amendment to lift the travel ban to Cuba in exchange for improvements on basic human rights, including the release of all political prisoners. Cuba has failed to make any significant steps regarding human rights.
The Obama administration's actions are favorable to the Castro brothers, who will select those to be approved for visas and be allowed into Cuba. Those perceived as promoting human rights or basic freedoms stand little chance of entering the country.
In fact, since 1989, even the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has been blocked from visiting and assessing the welfare of prisoners. Last week, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and I again asked the Cuban government for visas to visit political prisoners. (We've been turned away twice before.)
Before the Obama administration even considers making further concessions to Cuba or altering the trade embargo on Cuba, both the White House and Congress have a moral obligation—a duty—to ensure that the Cuban dictatorship releases all prisoners of conscience, makes substantial progress in respecting freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and holds free and fair elections.
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MR. GIBBS: No. No, I think we've -- I think we've met our commitments from the campaign on that.
The policy changes are sure to inject more money into Cuba's moribund economy, and many would-be travelers are already clamoring for still more barriers to fall. Even Fidel Castro, who had belittled the changes Monday, conceded Tuesday that they were "positive, although minimal."
Q You're going to Trinidad and Tobago. Most of these countries, it's the first time you meet with the leaders. They've been -- they want to
bring Cuba up as an issue. You've lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans. How is this issue going to play out?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I have no problem with them bringing up Cuba as an issue. I think I've been very clear about my position on
Cuba. What I've said is, is that we should loosen up restrictions on travel and remittances. We have now acted on that. We also believe
that Cuba can potentially be a critical part of regional growth in the region.
But Cuba has to take some steps, send some signals that when it comes to human rights, when it comes to political rights, when it comes to
the ability of Cubans to travel, that there is some signs that we're moving away from what has been a set of policies that have really
hampered Cuba's ability to grow.
I mean, I think -- think about the irony, the fact that, you know, on the one hand we're loosening up travel restrictions, and yet there are
a lot of Cubans who can't leave Cuba. That, I think, is an example of the kinds of changes that we hope we can promote over time. And I
think that our partners in Central and South America can be very important in helping to move away from the past and into the future.
Q Fidel Castro reacted to your lifting of sanctions, saying it was a positive move, but that he expected the lifting of the embargo. And he
said that Cuba won't beg, but that's what eventually they expect from the U.S.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't expect Cuba to beg. Nobody is asking for anybody to beg. What we're looking for is some signal that there are
going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that
they can travel, that they can write and attend church, and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for
granted. And if there's some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think that we can see a further thawing of relations and
But we took an important first step. I think it's a signal of our good faith that we want to move beyond the Cold War mentality that has
existed over the last 50 years. And hopefully we'll see some signs that Cuba wants to reciprocate.
The op-ed below by President Barack Obama appeared this morning in the following newspapers:
Trinidad Express (Trinidad & Tobago)
St. Petersburg Times (USA)
Miami Herald (USA)
El Nuevo Herald (USA)
The op-ed also ran in the following GRUPO DE DIARIOS AMÉRICA (GDA) affiliates across the hemisphere:
La Nación (Argentina) O Globo (Brazil) El Mercurio (Chile) El Tiempo (Colombia) La Nación (Costa Rica) El Comercio (Ecuador) El Universal (México) El Comercio (Perú) El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico) El País (Uruguay) El Nacional (Venezuela)
Choosing a Better Future in the Americas
by President Barack Obama
As we approach the Summit of the Americas, our hemisphere is faced with a clear choice. We can overcome our shared challenges with a sense of common purpose, or we can stay mired in the old debates of the past. For the sake of all our people, we must choose the future.
Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My Administration is committed to the promise of a new day. We will renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security.
In advance of the Summit, we have begun to move in a new direction. This week, we amended a Cuba policy that has failed for decades to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people. In particular, the refusal to allow Cuban Americans to visit or provide resources to their families on the island made no sense – particularly after years of economic hardship in Cuba, and the devastating hurricanes that took place last year. Now, that policy has changed.
The U.S.-Cuba relationship is one example of a debate in the Americas that is too often dragged back to the 20th century. To confront our economic crisis, we don't need a debate about whether to have a rigid, state-run economy or unbridled and unregulated capitalism – we need pragmatic and responsible action that advances our common prosperity. To combat lawlessness and violence, we don't need a debate about whether to blame right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents – we need practical cooperation to expand our common security.
We must choose the future over the past, because we know that the future holds enormous opportunities if we work together. That is why leaders from Santiago to Brasilia to Mexico City are focused on a renewed partnership of the Americas that makes progress on fundamental issues like economic recovery, energy, and security.
There is no time to lose. The global economic crisis has hit the Americas hard, particularly our most vulnerable populations. Years of progress in combating poverty and inequality hangs in the balance. The United States is working to advance prosperity in the hemisphere by jumpstarting our own recovery. In doing so, we will help spur trade, investment, remittances, and tourism that provides a broader base for prosperity in the hemisphere.
We also need collective action. At the recent G-20 Summit, the United States pledged to seek nearly half a billion dollars in immediate assistance for vulnerable populations, while working with our G-20 partners to set aside substantial resources to help countries through difficult times. We have called upon the Inter-American Development Bank to maximize lending to restart the flow of credit, and stand ready to examine the needs and capacity of the IDB going forward. And we are working to put in place tough, clear 21st century rules of the road to prevent the abuses that caused the current crisis.
While we confront this crisis, we must build a new foundation for long-term prosperity. One area that holds out enormous promise is energy. Our hemisphere has bountiful natural resources that could make renewable energy plentiful and sustainable, while creating jobs for our people. In the process, we can confront climate change that threatens rising sea levels in the Caribbean, diminishing glaciers in the Andes, and powerful storms on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Together, we have both the responsibility to act, and the opportunity to leave behind a legacy of greater prosperity and security. That is why I look forward to pursuing a new Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas that will help us learn from one another, share technologies, leverage investment, and maximize our comparative advantage.
Just as we advance our common prosperity, we must advance our common security. Too many in our hemisphere are forced to live in fear. That is why the United States will strongly support respect for the rule of law, better law enforcement, and stronger judicial institutions.
Security for our citizens must be advanced through our commitment to partner with those who are courageously battling drug cartels, gangs and other criminal networks throughout the Americas. Our efforts start at home. By reducing demand for drugs and curtailing the illegal flow of weapons and bulk cash south across our border, we can advance security in the United States and beyond. And going forward, we will sustain a lasting dialogue in the hemisphere to ensure that we are building on best practices, adapting to new threats, and coordinating our efforts.
Finally, the Summit gives every democratically-elected leader in the Americas the opportunity to reaffirm our shared values. Each of our countries has pursued its own democratic journey, but we must be joined together in our commitment to liberty, equality, and human rights. That is why I look forward to the day when every country in the hemisphere can take its seat at the table consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And just as the United States seeks that goal in reaching out to the Cuban people, we expect all of our friends in the hemisphere to join together in supporting liberty, equality, and human rights for all Cubans.
This Summit offers the opportunity of a new beginning. Advancing prosperity, security and liberty for the people of the Americas depends upon 21st century partnerships, freed from the posturing of the past. That is the leadership and partnership that the United States stands ready to provide.
"What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that they can travel, that they can write and attend church and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted… And if there is some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think we can see a further thawing of relations and further changes."
by Miguel Perez
April 16, 2009
He rules a country from the left, yet he doesn't have any need to be totalitarian. He has been called a socialist, yet he doesn't jail his political opponents, censor critical media or try to amend the Constitution to prolong his time in power.
Just by being himself, our new liberal American president could disarm the Latin American left.
When President Obama goes south of the border this week, he has a unique opportunity to change the course of Latin American history. Just by being himself, he could steer Latin America back from its recent decline toward totalitarian socialism. The revival of the old Latin American caudillos, now rebranded as leftists, could come to a screeching halt if Obama plays his cards well.
First in Mexico and then in Trinidad and Tobago, where he will participate in the Summit of the Americas with 33 other leaders this weekend, Obama undoubtedly will begin a new chapter in the history of U.S. relations with Latin America and the English-speaking Caribbean.
The question now is this: What kind of a chapter does Obama want to write? Will he tell Latin Americans to seek freedom and democracy above everything else? Or will he end up agreeing to sing "Kumbaya" with people who should be tried for crimes against humanity? Will he embrace dictators and ignore their atrocities, as a group of Democratic lawmakers did in Cuba last week, or will he tell Latin Americans that any kind of caudillo, from the left or from the right, should be a thing of the past?
After announcing an executive order lifting U.S. travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to visit or send remittances to their relatives back on the Caribbean island, two White House spokesmen -- in English and Spanish -- insisted Monday that the Obama administration now expects the Cuban government to make concessions that would lead to freedom and democracy for the Cuban people. This is crucial, and it means that President Obama may be on the right track. It's not Washington that has to change. It's Havana!
We simply cannot lift the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba without seeing some change -- fewer political prisoners, violations of human rights and mobs of government-sponsored goons and less repression and censorship, just to get started.
Because he is considered a leftist, in Latin America, Obama may have much more credibility to speak for democratic principles than his predecessor. Let's face it: The radically leftist Latin American leadership nowadays -- especially in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador -- doesn't know what to do with Obama. To promote themselves as crusaders against "Yankee imperialism," they would much prefer to have someone like George W. Bush in the White House.
And because Obama doesn't look or act like a Yankee imperialist, they know they have a huge "problema" on their hands. How do they keep using the United States as an excuse for seeking authoritarian powers? Where is the American boogeyman now?
Yet if Obama speaks in Latin America the way he spoke in Europe, if he addresses anti-American sentiments the way he did in Strasbourg, France, many confused Latinos may begin to identify their own real boogeymen.
"There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive," Obama said. "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious."
Wow! If he says something similar to that at the Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will have to duck!
If Obama recognizes that in the past, our government has "shown arrogance and been dismissive" toward Latin America while firmly explaining that there is no need for insidious anti-Americanism, he will disarm our worst critics and go a long way toward changing the course of U.S. relations with our hemispheric neighbors.
After all, unlike the liberal Latin American demagogues who use fear and repression to stay in power, Obama is a liberal leader who doesn't need to violate his people's civil and human rights. Just by being himself, Obama could disarm them!
Miguel Perez is an award-winning columnist and radio and television talk-show host who has covered Latino issues and concerns throughout a professional career that has spanned 30-plus years.
© Abilene Reporter-News
Thursday, April 16, 2009
AT THIS weekend's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, President Obama can expect to be importuned by Latin American leaders to go further than he already has to remove U.S. sanctions on Cuba. Leading the chorus -- or trying to -- will be Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has been propping up the hemisphere's oldest dictatorship with petrodollars. But Mr. Chávez probably will be joined by some of the moderate leftists the Obama administration is trying to court, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
One odd aspect of this is that nothing much has changed in Cuba, despite the transfer of power from 82-year-old Fidel Castro to his 77-year-old brother Raúl. Political prisoners have not been released, nor have controls on the press been eased; desperate Cubans are still denied even the right to flee their country. Meanwhile, quite a lot has been happening recently in Venezuela, where democracy has been under relentless and escalating assault. The Latin presidents seemingly would prefer that Mr. Obama ignore this news while rewarding the oppressive stasis in Havana.
What has Venezuela's would-be "Bolivarian revolutionary" been up to while the U.S. media have been focusing on Cuba? Well, in the past month, his prosecutors and rubber-stamp legislature have brought corruption or treason charges against four of the opposition governors and mayors elected in November. Manuel Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo, has gone into hiding to avoid arrest; former defense minister Raúl Baduel, who denounced Mr. Chávez as a dictator in the making, is already in jail. Opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff is under investigation for crimes allegedly committed in 1974.
To void an opposition victory in the Caracas mayor's race, Mr. Chávez had the National Assembly create a new presidentially appointed post to take over the mayor's powers. The mayoral offices have been occupied by pro-government thugs; troops seized ports in opposition-governed states. Government-controlled councils are being set up to undermine independent trade unions, while another new law is aimed at blocking foreign funding for human rights groups.
After a one-sided campaign, Mr. Chávez claimed victory in a February referendum that will allow him to remain president indefinitely. He describes the new crackdown as the "third phase" of his revolution. Little wonder that Venezuela's Catholic bishops said in an Easter message that Venezuela's democracy is now in "serious danger of collapse." Yet governments and media outside the country have largely ignored the new campaign. Human Rights Watch this week joined in the appeals for the liberalization of sanctions on Cuba but has taken no notice of the developments in Venezuela.
The Obama administration rightly is attempting to focus its Latin America diplomacy on big countries and constructive players such as Mr. Lula and Mexico's Felipe Calderón. No doubt Mr. Obama will listen to whatever Latin leaders have to tell him this weekend. But he ought to make clear that for the United States, at least, foreign policy will continue to be linked to democracy -- both for those countries that have denied it to their people for decades and those that now may seek to abolish it.
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada said on Wednesday it opposes moves to let Cuba rejoin the Organization of American States (OAS) because of what it said was Cuba's lack of commitment to democracy and human rights.
Several Latin American countries including Brazil have said Cuba should be allowed to rejoin the 35-member OAS. It was kicked out in 1962 because the OAS judged Cuba's Communist system to be incompatible with the group's principles.
"Cuba's return or eventual return -- if they're willing -- ...will obviously depend on Cuba's will to address hemispheric norms of participation, including representative democracy and respect for human rights," Canadian spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.
Soudas is press secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was addressing reporters before Harper's participation this weekend in the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
The reference to whether Cuba was willing to rejoin the OAS alluded to a remark by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Tuesday that his country had no desire to join the OAS and did not want to "hear the vile name of that institution".
Despite its position on Cuba rejoining the OAS, Canada has active diplomatic, travel and business ties with the Caribbean country.
Soudas welcomed moves by the Obama administration to lift U.S. restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, and encouraged Cuba to respond.
"It's important for Cuba to take stock of that openness that was demonstrated by the American administration, and obviously look at doing its fair share on making progress on their side as well," he told a news conference.
(Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Peter Galloway)
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April 14, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's easing of travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans drew faint praise Tuesday from Fidel Castro — but left critics on either side of the U.S.-Cuba policy debate disappointed...
Nearly every Cuban-American member of Congress — Republican and Democrat alike — assailed the administration for allowing Cuban-Americans to send unlimited amounts of cash to Cuba without securing concessions from Havana.
"It's a missed opportunity to not have first demanded from the Castro regime a drastic reduction in the outrageously high fees that families have to pay to the regime and its agents for both travel and remittances," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
And Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in an interview with MSNBC that while he agrees with more family travel, he "would have challenged the regime to allow Cuban-Americans to send money to their families without the state taking 30 percent."
"While family visits are great ... 30 percent of every dollar ultimately goes to the regime, not to put more food on the plates of Cuban families, not to see better health care or education, but ultimately to continue their state security system," Menendez said.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, a pro-embargo lobbyist, noted however that Obama is at odds with elected Cuban-American officials when it comes to allowing unrestricted remittances.
"There's only one electorate that votes on Cuba policy and that's Cuban-Americans," he said. "But they have written a policy that all six members of Congress who represent 95 percent of that community have some objections to."
By Jordy Yager
April, 11th 2009
As President Obama and members of Congress push to strengthen relations with Cuba, the State Department released a report on Friday that details Cuban efforts to weaken the morale of U.S. diplomats on the island by poisoning their family pets.
The 64-page report written in 2007 states that the life of U.S. diplomats serving in the U.S. Interest Section (USINT) - which issues visas and performs other diplomatic services in Havana - was laden with poor morale "in part because USINT life in Havana is life with a government that 'let's [sic] you know it's hostile.'"
Cuban officials would often try to create dissention within the ranks of U.S. diplomats on the island according to the report, which was prepared and released by the State Department inspector general.
"Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets. The regime has recently gone to great lengths to harass some employees by holding up household goods and consumable shipments. The apparent goal has been to instigate dissension within USINT ranks."
"(H)ousehold effects and consumable shipments are languishing in containers awaiting customs clearance. Customs clearance has also lagged for some unaccompanied air freight shipments," the report says. The official account of U.S. diplomats in the Communist country closely follows recent political efforts to improve ties with Cuba
President Obama, in advance of a summit of Latin American leaders that begins next week, is expected to ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans who send money and visit family in Cuba.
Several Latin America countries have put increasing pressure on Obama to signal a change in relations with Cuba. His move is meant to break with the hard-line approach taken by the Bush administration in which travel and the sending of money to the island was severely limited.
The report also comes days after a visit to Cuba by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They were the first U.S. officials to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro since he took over for his brother, Fidel, more than one year ago.
The U.S. delegation returned with positive comments about their discussion, which they said were the beginning stages of talks that could end the nearly 50-year old trade embargo with the island.
"This is a moment where we need to review our policies as it relates to the embargo against Cuba, and, first, allow American citizens to travel to Cuba," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on NPR this week. "(The embargo) has not worked. And, in fact, it has done just the opposite. It has isolated the United States."
The State Department has also been developing talk strategies with Cuba in order to anticipate what ending the embargo could mean in terms of emergency preparedness and travel to and from the island, according to the report released on Friday.
"Fidel Castro's incapacitation underscored the urgency of gaming out scenarios for a new era in relations between Cuba and the United States. USINT has actively engaged in planning for what comes next, including how the U.S. government can best pursue the outcomes that it desires.
"On a tactical level, USINT has devised steps that will allow it to react to the consular, migration, and security contingencies most likely to arise in emergency scenarios or with a change of regime. On a parallel track, the mission has continued to develop a plan for reacting to a major hurricane, a health epidemic, or other potential natural disasters."
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by Tom Steever
Senator Charles Grassley believes Cuba should be giving some concessions in return for the Obama Administration loosening travel and other restrictions to the island. The 47 year U.S. embargo of Cuba remains in place, as the Iowa GOP Senator says it should until there are signs of change from the Communist stronghold.
"The philosophy of the Castros is no friend of humanity," Grassley told reporters Tuesday, "and political and economic freedom would very much enhance (Cuba's) wellbeing."
Grassley stresses that pressure should be kept on the island nation until there are signs of change. "We ought to use all the political leverage we can," he said.
Senator Grassley says he'd favor changing U.S. policy toward Cuba if he believed there was evidence that Cubans would gain their freedom as a result. Until then, he favors the U.S. maintaining its current stance.
"And don't forget," Grassley added, "that the economy of Cuba was a lot better even for low income people than it is under Castro."
Grassley says political freedom brings about economic freedom, which, he says, results in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
by Clarence Page
April 15, 2009
Rep. Bobby Rush is the only political officeholder who can say that he beat Barack Obama. But he doesn't say it much. Not now.
"Yeah, a lot of people remind me of that," the South Side Democrat said when I reminded him of 2000, when he handily beat back then-state Sen. Obama's challenge. "But, I don't remind him of that."
Oh? Why not?
Again Rush laughed. "He's president now."
Oh, yeah. Right.
There are many other things for Rush to talk about, like Cuba. President Obama has lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans. They're allowed to send money there too. Next, the Obama administration hopes, comes access to cell phones and satellite TV. Then, I hope, comes an end to this country's 47-year-old Cold War relic of a trade embargo against Cuba.
But not, I hope, without some mention of the dozens of journalists, librarians, human rights activists and others who are behind bars in Cuba because they dared call for more democracy than the Castro regime approves.
We should dare to ask that the prisoners at least be allowed visits by the International Red Cross and other basic human rights before we cheerfully drop whatever leverage the trade embargo offers.
So I called Rush, whom I've known as a newsmaker since he made his early 1970s transition from Illinois Black Panther Party leader to Illinois Democratic Party leader. (That's how our democracy works. I love America.)
Rush recently traveled to Cuba with six members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Three of them, including Rush, were granted an audience with El Jefe himself, Fidel Castro, who, for health reasons, has ceded the presidential job to his kid brother Raul.
"I fully and enthusiastically support [Obama's] announcement," Rush told me. Then Rush disappointed me. "There are some additional changes that we need to take, but I would not put the litmus tests of political prisoners at the top of the agenda . . . or even democratization at the top as an ironclad condition before we normalize trade relations with Cuba."
Ay, por que no?
"I believe the issue of political prisoners, dissidents in Cuba, will be addressed at the proper time because people will address them," he said. "They need to be addressed. But right now the blockade is a failure."
Ah, here we go. The Cuba debate is like America's race debate. Voices in the reasonable middle get drowned out by extremists. Embargo supporters don't want to talk about its ineffectiveness. They'd rather talk about the awfulness of the Castro regime. Their left-progressive counterparts don't want to talk about the regime's abuses of race and rights if those touchy topics take time away from talking about America's historic abuses of race and rights.
"You know, back in South Side of Chicago, we have a song and a saying about how sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game," Rush said, chuckling at the irony he was about to express. "We're the only country that is blockading Cuba. . . . As a result, our freedoms are blockaded."
Indeed. The black caucus members said they were eager to speak with the island's many Afro-Cubans. Imagine the dialogue they could have stirred up during their five-day visit if they had spoken to Afro-Cuban dissidents?
Jorge Luis Garcia Perez was available. He was on a monthlong hunger strike protesting various government abuses. The renowned activist, also known as "Antunez," has been called the island's Nelson Mandela since his release from prison in 2007 after serving a 17-year sentence for saying things the government didn't like.
But side trips would have jeopardized the delegation's visit with Fidel. That's how it worked when I wandered off my government-approved itinerary in 2002 to visit independent journalists on behalf of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member.
Raul Rivero, one of the more celebrated journalists with whom I met, later was imprisoned in Castro's 2003 roundup of more than 75 dissidents and independent journalists. After Rivero was given the 2004 World Press Freedom Prize by a United Nations agency, he was released later that year at age 59 and continues his writing—in Spain.
But that leaves 21 journalists still behind bars in Cuba, by CPJ's count, making that island the world's second-leading jailer of journalists, after China.
That's one reason why I was disappointed to see the black caucus delegation lavish praise on the Castros for their hospitality, yet ask for nothing on behalf of freedom and human rights. "Power concedes nothing without a demand," Frederick Douglass wrote. "It never did and it never will."
I hope the Obama administration keeps that in mind as it moves toward a sensible Cuba policy. You don't always get what you want in politics but, at least, you have to ask.
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune
By Joaquin E. Ferrao
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In just a few days, President Obama will make his Latin American debut, participating in a 34-nation hemispheric Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. It promises to be a propitious opportunity for the new administration to highlight its emerging new policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.
The meeting's theme is human prosperity, and the leaders no doubt will discuss the global economic crisis. As is customary, the heads of state also will address a host of other matters, such as climate change and poverty, key concerns for Mr. Obama. Yet the proverbial fly in the ointment promises to be Cuba.
Though Latin American leaders avoid talking about Cuba in forums where the U.S. president participates, this may be different. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced his intent to use the summit to promote Cuba's readmission into the Organization of American States (OAS) and the inter-American system.
Most visibly, a parade of Latin American heads of state have descended on Havana to get their photos taken with Cuba's dear leader Fidel Castro before he passes to another world. Many Latin American presidents calculated that the new administration would radically change Cuba policy. On Monday, the White House announced the lifting of restrictions of Cuban-American travel and remittances, but the changes fall short of expectations.
The White House denied the measures were meant to quell pressure from Latin America.
However, Jeffrey S. Davidow, the White House special adviser on the summit, previewed the policy changes last week by emphasizing that Cuba should not be a topic of discussion at the summit. He noted, "It is not our intention to have difficulties with any of these countries." Admitting Cuba's current regime into the OAS and the summits would erode one of the fundamental tenets on which the inter-American system is premised - representative democracy.
Doing so before a major political change in Cuba would reward the region's only totalitarian government and its worst human rights violator, sending a signal to Cuba's oppressed people that the OAS has little regard for them and their right to elect their leaders, applying one standard for Cuba and another for everyone else. The OAS itself recognizes that " ... representative democracy is an indispensable condition for stability, peace and development in the region."
Furthermore, allowing Cuba's regime into the OAS would be destructive to the increasingly weakened Inter-American Democratic Charter and the OAS itself. Including the Cuban regime in the summit process would reverse a long-standing policy against dictatorships, rooted in the region's history and agreed to by all leaders (including Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez) at the 2001 Quebec City Summit of the Americas.
The impetus to admit Cuba coincides with Mr. Chavez's efforts to erode the importance of the OAS, the Democratic Charter and the summit process. Mr. Chavez has repeatedly denigrated the OAS and its secretary-general, threatened to withdraw and openly used other regional forums to undermine the OAS and the summits.
From a practical perspective, Cuba's entry would create an opening to overturn well-established consensus on a range of issues, from democratic governance and human rights to security cooperation and property rights. This would suit Mr. Chavez and his allies just fine because Cuba's totalitarian nature would set a new low for the hemisphere - a standard they certainly could meet. Other fragile democracies need not worry about respecting civil and political rights.
The United States should welcome discussion about Cuba at the summit because the Democratic Charter offers a hemispheric road map for the return of a democratic Cuba - one that respects fundamental freedoms - to the OAS. Mr. Obama should not oppose Cuba's entry; instead, he should insist that adherence to the principles and practices of the Democratic Charter needs to be a prerequisite for Cuba's admission.
The Democratic Charter offers a prescription, not made in Washington, but one forged by all member states in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001. As the OAS acknowledged during the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, " ... adherence to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as the standard that enables observance and defense of democratic values and principles, strengthens and is a key element for member states' full participation in the inter-American system."
The United States also should strongly encourage the OAS to formulate a plan to help Cuba make a transition to democracy and come into full compliance with the Democratic Charter.
At the summit, Mr. Obama needs to clearly outline U.S. commitment to the unconditional release of all political prisoners; respect for fundamental rights, including political and civil rights of the Cuban people; and the development of a pathway toward internationally supervised free and democratic elections. These objectives transcend political parties and have been advocated in one form or another by every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.
These conditions are consistent with the obligation of the OAS to promote and defend democracy and would send a powerful signal from the new U.S. president to Latin American leaders. After all, beyond the lifting of all sanctions, Latin America has no other policy to deal with the current repression or potential changes on the island.
The Obama administration should use its political capital, get on the offensive and protect the democratic norms that the hemisphere has struggled to put together. On Cuba, it should work privately, with courageous regional leaders, to strategize on areas of agreement. We could agree to disagree on lifting all U.S. sanctions but work with Latin America to formulate an approach toward Cuba that puts the Inter-American Democratic Charter at the center of the debate and thereby pressures the Cuban regime to open up political space.
Ironically, if Mr. Obama does not clearly and affirmatively outline his intentions to support the cause of freedom in Cuba, he will allow others to "Cubanize" the summit and hijack the agenda. That is something his advisers say they desperately want to avoid.
Joaquin E. Ferrao was a senior policy adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs in 2005-09. He has served both in the Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs and as alternate representative to the Organization of American States.
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Rep. Sires On Obama Cuba Changes
MYFOXNY.COM - President Barack Obama is lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for Americans of Cuban descent, but the change is not welcomed by all Cuban-Americans including New Jersey Congressman Albio Sires.
By MATTHEW LEE
WASHINGTON (AP) - A planned trip to Cuba this week by a U.S. religious freedom watchdog group has been canceled after the Cuban government did not issue visas to the delegation, the group said Monday, even as the Obama administration moved to ease sanctions on the communist nation.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it had been forced to call off the fact-finding visit that had been scheduled to run from Tuesday to Thursday due to the lack of visas. It said the visas had been applied for weeks earlier and it had received no explanation for why they were not granted.
Click here to read this article in its entirety...
Office of the Press Secretary
April 13, 2009
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF STATE
THE SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY
THE SECRETARY OF COMMERCE
SUBJECT: Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba
The promotion of democracy and human rights in Cuba is in the national interest of the United States and is a key component of this Nation's foreign policy in the Americas. Measures that decrease dependency of the Cuban people on the Castro regime and that promote contacts between Cuban-Americans and their relatives in Cuba are means to encourage positive change in Cuba. The United States can pursue these goals by facilitating greater contact between separated family members in the United States and Cuba and increasing the flow of remittances and information to the Cuban people.
To pursue those ends, I direct the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to take such actions as necessary to:
(a) Lift restrictions on travel-related transactions for visits to a person's family member who is a national of Cuba by authorizing such transactions by a general license that shall:
- Define family members who may be visited to be persons within three degrees of family relationship (e.g., second cousins) and to allow individuals who share a common dwelling as a family with an authorized traveler to accompany them;
- Remove limitations on the frequency of visits;
- Remove limitations on the duration of a visit;
- Authorize expenditure amounts that are the same as non-family travel; and
- Remove the 44-pound limitation on accompanied baggage.
- Authorizing remittances to individuals within three degrees of family relationship (e.g., second cousins) provided that no remittances shall be authorized to currently prohibited members of the Government of Cuba or currently prohibited members of the Cuban Communist Party;
- Removing limits on frequency of remittances;
- Removing limits on the amount of remittances;
- Authorizing travelers to carry up to $3,000 in remittances; and
- Establishing general license for banks and other depository institutions to forward remittances.
(d) License U.S. telecommunications service providers to enter into and operate under roaming service agreements with Cuba's telecommunications service providers.
(e) License U.S. satellite radio and satellite television service providers to engage in transactions necessary to provide services to customers in Cuba.
(f) License persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to activate and pay U.S. and third-country service providers for telecommunications, satellite radio, and satellite television services provided to individuals in Cuba, except certain senior Communist Party and Cuban government officials.
(g) Authorize, consistent with national security concerns, the export or reexport to Cuba of donated personal communications devices such as mobile phone systems, computers and software, and satellite receivers through a license exception.
(h) Expand the scope of humanitarian donations eligible for export through license exceptions by:
- Restoring clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, veterinary medicines and supplies, fishing equipment and supplies, and soap-making equipment to the list of items eligible to be included in gift parcel donations;
- Restoring items normally exchanged as gifts by individuals in "usual and reasonable" quantities to the list of items eligible to be included in gift parcel donations;
- Expanding the scope of eligible gift parcel donors to include any individual;
- Expanding the scope of eligible gift parcel donees to include individuals other than Cuban Communist Party officials or Cuban government officials already prohibited from receiving gift parcels, or charitable, educational, or religious organizations not administered or controlled by the Cuban government; and
- Increasing the value limit on non-food items to $800.
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release April 13, 2009
PRESS BRIEFING (including Spanish text)
PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS
DAN RESTREPO, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT AND SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:32 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon, how is everyone today?
Q Fine, thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Good. 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.)
Hoy, el Presidente Obama ha ordenado que se tomen ciertas medidas, ciertos pasos, para extender la mano al pueblo cubano, para apoyar su deseo de vivir con respeto a los derechos humanos y para poder determinar su destino propio y el destino de su país.
El Presidente ha dado instrucciones a los secretarios de Estado, Comercio y Tesoro para que pongan en marcha las acciones necesarias para eliminar todas las restricciones a individuos para que puedan visitar a sus familiares en la isla y mandar remesas. Además ha dado instrucciones para que se tomen pasos para permitir el flujo libre de información entre el pueblo cubano y entre quienes están en Cuba y el resto del mundo, y para facilitar la entrega de recursos humanitarios enviados directamente al pueblo cubano.
Al tomar estas medidas para ayudar a -- cerrar la brecha -- la brecha entre familias cubanas divididas y promover el flujo libre de información y artículos de ayuda humanitaria para el pueblo cubano, el Presidente Obama está esforzándo por cumplir los objetivos que fijó durante la campaña y desde el asumio del cargo.
Todos aquellos que creen en los valores democráticos básicos anhelan una Cuba que respeta los derechos humanos, políticos, económicos, básicos de todo su pueblo. El Presidente Obama considera que estas medidas ayudarán a hacer realidad ese objetivo. El Presidente - El Presidente alenta a todos quienes comparten este deseo, que sigan cometidos a su firme apoyo para el pueblo cubano.
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. RESTREPO: 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.
MR. GIBBS: Jennifer.
Q I have one on this and one on pirates. I don't know how you want to do that.
MR. GIBBS: Let's do this, and we'll save pirates for the second --
Q The second half?
MR. GIBBS: After the intermission.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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: (Speaking Spanish.) ¿Lourdes, lo quieres en español también?
I'm going to do that in Spanish for her. (Speaking Spanish.)
Esto, esta es una reacción, este es una propuesta, no es una reacción, es cumpliendo con algo que el Presidente dijo hace más o menos un año, que prometió durante la campaña. Y estos son medidas del Presidente a extender la mano al pueblo cubano. Esto no es reacción a cualquier presión de cualquier otro gobierno.
Reconocemos que otros gobiernos tienen su punto de vista con respeto a la situación en Cuba y la -- la -- las relaciones entre los Estados Unidos y Cuba. Los -- lo que todos queremos ver, que todos cooperan, y trabajen para avanzar lo que todos queremos ver, que es una cuba que está viviendo libre, que -- le -- donde el pueblo cubano puede decidir el destino, su propio destino, su propio futuro, y que nadie esté por medio. Esa es la razón por la cual se están tomando estas -- estas medidas hoy, cumpliendo con una promesa y avanzan -- avanzando la libertad del pueblo cubano.
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.
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.) Con respecto a la participation de Cuba en la OEA – los EEUU piensa que todos los gobiernos que cumplen con la Carta Democrática Interamericana deben tener su sitio en la mesa de la OEA. Y esperamos ese día cuando un gobierno Cubano, que vive bajo los requisitos de la Carta, puede llegar a sentarse en esa silla.
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.
Do you guys have anything back there?
Q I have a question.
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q I'm from Colombia, and I know this is not a topic about this President really, but for me it's impossible not to ask you if President Obama is planning to have a meeting with President Uribe in Colombia, and how it's going to be, that relationship between both governments during the Obama administration? Because, of course, Colombia was like a child in Latin America for the White House, but it's not -- I know it's not going to be like that anymore.
MR. RESTREPO: President Obama values the deep and historic, constructive, positive relationship that's existed between the United States and Colombia, and looks forward to advancing that relationship.
He looks forward to seeing President Uribe and his fellow colleagues at the Summit of the Americas, and working as -- sees the summit as a first step in creating the kinds of relationships and partnerships in the hemisphere to advance the basic responses to the common challenges we face, all countries face in the hemisphere. A positive relationship with Colombia is certainly part of that. The United States and Colombia share a deep connection.
I'm half-Colombian, my last name is something of a dead giveaway on that, so I feel this very -- at a very personal level. But it's important to recognize the importance of the relationship, from government to government, that has not been dependent on one President or another President, but the deep relationship that exists between the United States and Colombia. And we look forward to working with the Colombian government and the Colombian people.
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.) Perdon. Lo que desea -- no es que los EEUU desea una repuesta del gobierno Cubano. Lo que queremos todos - creo que todo el mundo quiere ver – es que ese gobierno respete los derechos políticos, económicos, humanos básicos del pueblo Cubano, que el pueblo Cubano pueda vivir con la libertad que merecen.
Hoy, el Presidente Obama no está esperando una repuesta, está extendiendo la mano al pueblo Cubano a decirles que nosotros apoyamos su deseo de vivir en la libertad.
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.
Do you have one more follow-up on this?
Q No, I’m thinking about pirates.
MR. GIBBS: All right. Well, thank you.
MR. RESTREPO: Thank you, sir.
Q So, pirates.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, what's next?
Q Well, the President talked, both in his statement yesterday and in his remarks today about addressing the bigger picture here, the increasingly problematic situation off the Horn of Africa. In his briefing over at the Pentagon, the Defense Secretary said, you know, some language, something like we're going to have to figure out what in the world to do, which implies that there really isn't much -- a plan or a strategy yet to figure out how to attack this problem. Can you talk about what's going on here?
MR. GIBBS: When you say that, you mean the -- do you mean specifically maritime or do you mean -- I mean, obviously, you've got
-- look, I think you've got a number of problems.
Q Well, I mean, the maritime piracy problem, which I think is what the President was referring to when he said --
MR. GIBBS: Right. Well, I think also -- you know, the President has spoken about this before, and I'm sure will continue to speak about and work on the issue also of ungoverned spaces. And I don't think that can be in any way really minimized here.
That's something that -- that trip when -- when he went to Africa in 2006, we spent some time in this region of the world and --
(Cell phone interruption.)
MR. GIBBS: At least it's a normal ring. (Laughter.)
We spent some time in this region of the world, and you quickly understand some of the challenges that lay before you.
I think some of the things that we can -- that we have done and can continue to do to ensure maritime safety is to work for sustained international cooperation in order to coordinate security.
Q Does that mean more military power on the part of the U.S.?
MR. GIBBS: I think that is certainly -- operationally, I would point you over to the Pentagon, but I know in terms of the increased risk that we had over the past few days, you saw more resources and assets. Obviously this is a -- it's also a very huge expanse of space that has to be patrolled. I think also what has to happen is we do have to evaluate and be prepared to take stronger action interdicting acts of piracy. And I think another thing is to encourage greater efforts to bring individuals and groups suspected of these type of acts, to bring those to justice.
We have seen an increase in this type of violence and I know the President is concerned about the safety and security of men and women that are in that area.
Q Back on Cuba. Is there any consideration of some sort of special envoy for Cuba, like Senator Lugar suggested? And also, looking forward to the summit, is -- or the visit to Mexico, is there any likelihood that we'll get some sort of announcement on movement on issues like trucking or immigration?
MR. GIBBS: We'll have more on -- a little bit of a trip overview for Mexico later. I don't know of any current envoy plans for Cuba.
Q The White House -- President Obama gave a special -- with Pentagon permission -- authority to send special forces on Friday and Saturday. What were the rules of engagement for those forces? Were they able to shoot at the pirates immediately? Did they have to wait until they felt like Captain Phillips was under some sort of imminent danger?
MR. GIBBS: I can -- I will check and I would point you also to the Pentagon in terms of whatever operational details they feel safe in giving. But I don't know that I'm going to get into a lot of operational detail from here.
Q Okay, just one quick follow-up. Do you guys have any response to the fact that a Somali Islamist group took credit or blame, however you want to look at it, for firing mortars at a plane that Congressman Payne was on?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, again, I think it goes to a certain lawlessness in the area. Obviously it is an area of -- a region of the world that is extremely dangerous, and that we, in coordination with our international partners, have to take steps to control. These are areas that -- and this is true for many ungoverned spaces -- is that you breed very bad people that want to do very bad things.
And the President is focused on the safety and security of the American people and will take steps to ensure that that's the case.
Q Robert, there's a report today suggesting that the Treasury Department may want GM to be pushed into bankruptcy pretty quickly in the next few weeks. What's the President's latest thinking on the best route for GM?
MR. GIBBS: Well, in reading the story, I, in all truthfulness, don't find that the story is much different, if at all, than what the President said in making his initial findings on the plans for seeking more aid for GM and for Chrysler. The President said that for GM this is a path that might ultimately have to be taken in order to put it back on a path towards -- a strong path towards sustainability.
The President and the Auto Task Force haven't prejudged anything.
The President believes, as well as the members of the Auto Task Force, that all of the stakeholders involved -- the company, the workers, the bond holders -- everybody has to understand that we're going to have to give in order to get GM strongly back on its feet.
So I think the story, in my viewing of it, in all honesty recounts exactly what the President said a couple of weeks ago.
Q So bankruptcy has always been an option, basically. And so there's really no -- nothing new in terms of more imminence or pressure from the administration to go in that direction.
MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, look, again, I think it's important that all of those involved understand that the President desires an auto industry that is strong and is resilient and is able to function without government help. I think that's the goal, quite honestly, for every business and bank.
The stakeholders involved -- I think many of them understand that, and have to take steps to make sure that their understanding of that is matched by their actions. The eventuality of that bankruptcy or not in some ways will be determined by many of the stakeholders.
Q Somalia. Is the country a national security risk? Do you guys view the country as a national security risk to this country, the United States?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- I don't want to get out of my lane here on what the national security guys might say. I obviously -- I will say that whether it is -- whether there are people that are planning and doing things in that country and other countries around the world that seek to do this country harm, there certainly -- as I said, because of those ungoverned spaces, there's always that concern. I'm not briefed on specific intelligence that would allow me to make such a --
Q Was there any interaction between representatives of our government and representatives of the Somali government during this -- during this crisis?
MR. GIBBS: I will check with NSC, but I'm sure --
Q Would there be anybody to deal with? I mean, is that the issue?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't think -- again, I think the situation, without drawing a sort of broad brush here, I think the situation obviously involved a captive American citizen; that the commanders on the Bainbridge believed he was in imminent danger and that the President had authorized the use of what actions they deemed necessary to protect his life and ensure his security.
Q Can you preview tomorrow's speech at all?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, tomorrow the President -- the President will, I think, discuss again where we are economically, give people -- give the American people an update on where we are in many of the challenges that continue to lie ahead. You heard the President late last week talk about some glimmers of hope.
I think the President also understands that even as there are some promising statistics -- whether it's housing or something like that -- that we still are likely to see many, many months of unemployment where hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs.
But I think the President wants the opportunity to update the American people on where we are, what we have to do going forward, and lay out the steps that are being taken to help our economy recover, and to build from recession to recovery; to update the American people on the steps that are being taken related to financial stability and in regulation; and to, as he has talked about and I have talked about on a number of occasions, address some of the long-term gaps that he sees that have to be addressed in order to ensure that sustained economic recovery that he and the American people want so badly.
Q You may not know the answer to this, but has another language other than English ever been spoken from this podium as far as you know?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer to that, but I -- my sense is no, but I honestly don't know if there's been
MR. KNOLLER: I don't think so.
Q Mark doesn't think so and he's a better source -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I was going to say -- yes, if -- look, if the answer is no from Mark, that's, quite frankly, good enough for me.
(Laughter.) I think -- again, I think it's important -- we didn't do it on accident, we weren't trying to set a record, but it's neat that we did.
I think it's important that the people of the -- the Cuban people and the people -- Cuban Americans here hear directly in a language -- in any language that they can understand that the President promised to take steps to encourage and bring about greater freedom for the Cuban people, and that's what he's done so today.
Q One other thing. On the -- a slightly more complicated question -- on the telecom policy change that you're announcing, I guess I'm just trying to get my head around especially the TV portion of this since it would require the Castro regime's approval. Is this more of a symbolic step, or do you really expect that there's going to be a rush of satellite TV --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me get a better -- let me clarify that for you better with Dan, but I think, as he said, I think the announcement also puts great pressure on the Cuban government to take some steps to ensure that sort of openness. I'll get you some specifics from Dan on licensing and things like that because I know the satellite part is somewhat complicated.
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04/12 - 04/19
- Obama Boycotts Durban II, Castro Is Surely Disappo...
- The Ball Is In Cuba's Court
- WH: Actions Speak Louder Than Words
- In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 2
- The U.S. Has Changed Over Time, It's Now Cuba's Tu...
- Background Briefing (Cuba Portions Only)
- Morning Session at the Summit
- Did Raul Make An "Overture" to Obama? Not Likely....
- Chris Matthews Slams Engagement With Castro
- Obama to Chavez: Hi, I'm Barack Obama
- Obama Speech at Summit
- Menendez Statement On Raul Castro's Comments
- Q&A w/ WH Press Secretary Gibbs
- From Air Force One (en route to Trinidad)
- Obama Calls Lula For Leverage Against Chavez
- The Most Expensive Remittance Market In the World
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- Fidel Thanks Congressional Opponents of U.S. Polic...
- Raul Responds to Obama
- Not a Republican Issue, Nor a Democrat Issue
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- Obama in Mexico (on Cuba)
- Congresswoman Laura Richardson's Press Release
- In Kansas Senate Race, Moran, Tiahrt Differ On Cub...
- Obama’s Actions Favor Castros, Not Human Rights
- From Air Force One
- U.S. Policy Change Means More Money, Visits
- Full Transcript of Obama on Cuba
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- Obama Directly Comments on Cuba
- A Bulls-Eye Analysis That Deserves National Attent...
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