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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Opening Remarks on Cuba at Press Briefing followed by Question and Answer Session by other Administration Officials
Washington, D.C., March 20, 1998
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State

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Opening Statement on Cuba

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Good afternoon. Today, I want to discuss with you four actions the President has decided to take to reach out to the people of Cuba to make their lives more tolerable.

First, we will work with Congressional leaders such as Chairman Helms, with whom I discussed this subject at length yesterday, and with Senator Dodd, Senator Graham and Senator Torricelli and others in both the Senate and House who have demonstrated concern about the plight of the Cuban people. Together, we will develop bipartisan legislation to meet humanitarian food needs on the island.

Second, we will streamline and expedite the issuance of licenses for the sale of medical supplies to Cuba. Third, we will resume licensing direct humanitarian charter flights. Finally, we will restore arrangements to permit Cuban-American families to send remittances to their relatives in Cuba.

Let me explain what these actions do and do not mean, and why we have taken them at this time. Let me be very clear. They do not reflect a change in policy towards the Cuban Government. That policy has been, and remains, to seek a peaceful transition to democracy.

Over the past two decades, the Americas have been transformed from a hemisphere dense with dictators to one in which every single country, except for Cuba, has an elected government, if you will look at your maps. We believe the Cuban people deserve the same rights and liberties as their counterparts from Patagonia to Prudhoe Bay.

With that goal in mind, we will maintain economic pressure through the embargo and the Helms-Burton Act. We will seek to increase multilateral support, which has been building, to press for political openness in Cuba and respect for human rights. We will continue to shine a spotlight on Havanaís prisoners of conscience and call for their release. We will strive to ensure that migration from Cuba is safe, orderly and legal.

And we will not forget that, twenty-five months ago, three US citizens and one legal resident were shot down in international airspace, nor will we cease our efforts with the world community to make Castroís regime take responsibility for those acts of murder.

Of course, we would like to see Castro embrace democracy. But after 38 years, he appears as autocratic as ever -- continuing to arrest political dissidents and exile others. Nevertheless, the Cuban people are beginning to think beyond Castro. We need to do the same.

The basis of any dictatorshipís power is control. The more dependent people are on the state, the more they are controlled. We can help to lessen the Cuban peopleís dependence on the Cuban state by addressing humanitarian needs, aiding the development of a civil society and strengthening the role of the Church and other non-governmental organizations. By so doing, we can begin to empower Cuban citizens and help them prepare to make a peaceful transition to democracy.

We are taking these steps now not because of anything the Castro regime has done; nor are we doing it to improve official relations with the Government of Cuba. On the contrary, we are acting because of new possibilities that exist outside the governmentís control. Those possibilities were brought into the open this past January by Pope John Paul IIís historic visit to Cuba. The Pope went to Cuba, in his own words, as a pilgrim of love, of truth and of hope. And he delivered a clear and unambiguous message that prisoners of conscience should be released; human rights should be respected; and a climate of freedom should prevail.

Earlier this month, I met with His Holiness in Rome. He spoke warmly about the reception his message had received. He expressed support for steps that would reduce the suffering and isolation of the Cuban people. And he has publicly stated the hope that his pilgrimage to Cuba would have an impact similar to that of the trips he had made earlier to a Poland then still behind the Iron Curtain and still ruled by martial law.

Of course, Cuba is not Poland, where pride in the Popeís background gave his visit extra meaning. But there are similarities. As in Cuba, the Popeís visits to Poland were arranged by the Church, not the government; and the outpouring of enthusiasm astonished the regime, which had assumed wrongly that years of dictatorship had caused religious faith to erode. In Poland, and I suspect in Cuba, thousands upon thousands of citizens realized for the first time that they shared a deep bond not created or controlled by the state. This is the kind of realization that can produce historic change.

Over the past month, in Florida and elsewhere, Iíve consulted with the Cuban-American community. Not surprisingly, there is a divergence of views. But there is agreement that the Popeís visit generated huge currents of energy and excitement within Cuba. And that we should explore ways to help the Cuban people without helping the government.

As we implement the steps Iím announcing today, we will do all we can to meet that standard. For example, we will continue to verify that medicines reach the Cuban people and are not diverted to other uses. We will allow humanitarian, but not tourist or business, flights. And we know that we will have a better chance of seeing that remittances go to the intended recipients if they are regularized in transparent and legal channels.

For far too long, the Cuban people have been held back by the old thinking and brutal policies of Fidel Castro -- a leader they never chose. The time has come to move on, and to look ahead to a new era of fresh thinking based on timeless principles.

We know that in expectation of the Popeís visit, Christmas Day had special meaning in Cuba this year. We will not rest until another day -- Election Day -- has real meaning there, as well. That day will come. We hope soon.

Bearing in mind Jose Martiís words that fraternity and solidarity is never a concession, it is always a duty, we will do all we can to help meet the needs of the Cuban people -- our neighbors, brothers and sisters -- as they prepare for that new day.

Thank you very much.

Question and Answer Session by
Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Ambassador James Dobbins, Special Assistant to the President and NSC Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs, and Michael Ranneberger, Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs

AMB. JEFFREY AMB. DAVIDOW: My name is Jeffrey Davidow; this is Jim Dobbins of the White House, and Michael Ranneberger, who is the director of the Office of Cuban Affairs and quite expert on the technicalities of these issues.

QUESTION: Do you expect that over time these measures will have the effect of eroding support for the Cuban Government?

AMB. DAVIDOW: I think what will happen over time -- and indeed we have already seen this -- is that these measures will help create in Cuba other centers of activity. Cuba is notable in the world today in its apparent absence of what we have all come to call "civil society." There are no independent institutions or organizations in Cuba. There is no free press. There are no free political parties. There is no independent Girl Scout movement. Everything is controlled by the Communist party, as it was in the Soviet Union decades ago.

So, part of the desired result here is to open up breathing space, in the first instance by helping humanitarian organizations do their work. And hopefully that will extend to the creation of other organizations, allowing them to do more work in developing civil society in Cuba.

AMB. JAMES AMB. DOBBINS: I think both the President's statement and what Secretary Albright just said put an emphasis on promoting a peaceful transition to democracy. We don't know when the transition will come; we are confident it will come. We want it to come peacefully; and we believe that the development of civil society along the lines that Jeff has suggested will contribute both to its coming, but also to its being peaceful and expeditious when that transition occurs.

And just to add one other point, clearly, at the moment, the largest non-governmental organization in Cuba is the Catholic Church, and to the degree that we can provide assistance which is channeled through the Catholic Church -- and not exclusively through the Catholic Church, through other denominations and through other non-governmental, non-sectarian organizations -- we can begin to build this civil society. It is notable that the Pope's visit was organized by the Catholic Church -- by a non-governmental organization in Cuba. And it is that kind of non-governmental activity of a peaceful and benign sort that we are seeking through these measures to support.

QUESTION: Can you explain why you decided to do it in this manner? The Helms people are complaining that Helms had legislation moving forward, he was trying to build a bipartisan political consensus on Cuba, and the Administration just sort of pulled the rug out from under them by acting in what they say is in a unilateral manner. And they have even raised the suggestion that perhaps the President doesn't have the legal standing to do this because some of these actions were codified in Helms-Burton. So, could you talk to all that?

AMB. DAVIDOW: Well, we are absolutely convinced -- and more importantly, the lawyers are convinced -- that the President does have the legal standing to do this. Rather than to get into the details of that, we would be glad to provide you more information on this.

The Secretary of State, as she said, did meet with Senator Helms yesterday. I believe it was a good, useful conversation. The President stated this morning that he is prepared to work with bipartisan groups on the Hill, and the Secretary of State repeated this, to see if there is a possibility for legislation to deal with the issue of proportion of foodstuffs -- sending foodstuffs to Cuba.

The measures that are taken today in relation to remittances, flights, medical, are not ones that we feel were covered or encumbered by the Helms-Burton legislation. The embargo remains in force. It is the intent of the US Government to enforce that embargo as an important element of our overall Cuba policy.

QUESTION: About the embargo, just one broad question. If the Secretary calls for fresh thinking based on timeless principles, well, the embargo is certainly a case of old thinking from another era, and the principles are in question now; and I wonder why so little, in a sense. And I have one more specific question which has to do with the shipping method. A group called the Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba complained a couple months ago, just as the Pope was about to travel, that there was no way they could send in medicines and other supplies because of the restrictions on shipping and it raised costs to quadruple what the value of the goods was. I haven't heard whether this is being remedied in the latest proposal.

AMB. DAVIDOW: Well, I'll let Mike Ranneberger answer specific questions on shipping, and I'm not familiar with this particular organization, but our figures indicate that hundreds of millions of dollars in medical donations and in humanitarian donations have gone into Cuba from the United States in recent years. So if one group complains that it hasn't been able to do that, perhaps it's not operating with the same efficiency as other groups.

Mike, do you have anything specific on it?

MR. RANNEBERGER: No, just the specific figure is that we've licensed almost $275 million now in medical assistance. We have reason to believe that the vast bulk of that has gotten to Cuba.

On the shipping issue, there is a provision under the embargo where ships that call at Cuban ports can't call at US ports for 180 days following that. However, that said, there is a regular shipping line that runs to Cuba through third countries. These medicines can be sent to third countries and shipped to Cuba; admittedly, at increased costs.

The restoration of the direct flights -- and this is a very important point -- will allow medicines and other humanitarian donations to be sent directly to Cuba, and will substantially reduce those costs.

QUESTION: But you're not changing, then, the actual restriction on shipping American -- in other words, the six-month ban still applies?

MR. RANNEBERGER: That's correct.

QUESTION: And can you take up the broader question of why so little, in a sense, after 39 years of this embargo?

AMB. DOBBINS: I mean, I think there are some who are going to say we did too little, there are some who are going to say we've done too much. We think this strikes the right balance.

The intent was not to change our policy toward Cuba; the intent was not to abandon the embargo. The intent was to begin to focus on Cuba beyond Castro, and to think of steps we can take now that insure that there is a peaceful and smooth transition to democracy at that time. We believe the steps we have taken can make a direct contribution. There may well be further steps; we're open to suggestions, and we'll be talking to people on the Hill and elsewhere.

This concept of building civil society is one that was really derived from the experience largely in Eastern Europe, but also in the move from dictatorship to democracy which occurred in the 1980s in South America, Central America. It is one that was originally put forward in the Cuban Democracy Act in 1994, and it's one that we've been seeking to advance through official US aid programs, as well as regulatory steps which facilitate non-governmental organizations and others who want to engage in this kind of activity and we will continue to be open to ways of facilitating and promoting that in the future.

QUESTION: I have a follow up. So, with your decision to still apply the embargo, do you think this policy is in the right direction? I mean, it has been more than 30 years since you applied the embargo and Castro is still in power; so how long are we going to wait until the embargo is going to have an effect? And I have -- when you say further steps in the right direction, you are talking about probably taking another measure, trying to find out the permission from the Congress to suspend Chapter IV of Helms-Burton?

AMB. DAVIDOW: Well, you've asked a lot of questions and let me just say that, to follow up what Jim said on the embargo, yes, the embargo has been in place for a long time; and yes, Castro has not changed the nature of that regime. But during all those years that the United States was not, and has not been trading with Cuba, much of the entire world has been. And the question should equally be asked, if our policy, in your view, is not successful, has the policy of the rest of the world, in trading with Cuba, been successful?

Cuba's economy is a disaster because of the economic policies of the Cuban Government. The results of those policies were in some measure masked during the years that Cuba was receiving billions -- thousands of millions of dollars of assistance every year from Eastern Europe. When that ended, the true nature of the Cuban economy became ever more apparent. So I do think that it's overly facile to suggest that because Castro is still in power, the embargo has not worked. What's more, it has provided an opportunity for the United States to state a very strong political opinion about the need for democracy and freedom in that country. Now, I'm not sure I understood the question about Title IV of Helms-Burton.

QUESTION: Because Mr. Dobbins says that they are looking for further steps and my question was --

AMB. DOBBINS: You don't have to --

QUESTION: -- that you have a compromise with the European Union to suspend Chapter IV -- at least to try to get the authorization from Congress.

AMB. DOBBINS: That's really a different question related to the handling of expropriated property on a global basis, and not specifically with respect to Cuba. So we can get into that but it really doesn't have anything to do with what we're talking about today, nor does it have anything to do with the embargo.

I think on the embargo, I'm not sure a prolonged argument about whether or not it's good is particularly useful; we can rehearse it if you'd like. I think if you look at the maps we've circulated, you will see that we believe, in part as a result of our successful efforts to isolate Cuba, the hemisphere has become overwhelmingly democratic.

Now, in terms of what are the conditions under which the United States would lift he embargo, and how do we envisage doing that? We provided the Congress a long report last year on US support for a democratic transition in Cuba. We estimated that $4 billion to $8 billion worth of external assistance would be available to a Cuba that wanted to move toward democratic elections and other normal democratic forums, and we discussed how it would be provided. And that report, as well as Helms-Burton itself, indicates the criteria that would need to be met, and they're fairly straight-forward criteria that have been met by almost every other country in the world.

QUESTION: When do you expect these measures to take effect under executive order? And secondly, aren't we really just reverting US policy back to pre-1994 and the painful interludes of the exile exodus and the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down?

AMB. DOBBINS: First of all, I don't believe that an executive order is necessary to implement this. What we're talking about is changes in licensing procedures, and I think the President's announcement today makes clearer what he's done, which is ask the relevant agencies of government -- State, Treasury, Commerce -- to develop new licensing procedures to permit each of these activities. So it's a very simple, very straightforward process. It'll take several weeks. We'll want to consult with the affected groups and make sure that the process is an inclusive one that takes account of views so that when new procedures are published, they're effective and address the problem and do what's intended.

So this will happen over the next several weeks, and affected people who are interested in this will be given an opportunity to get their views, and we'll try to keep people informed.

QUESTION: Will those flights occur by the end of the year, do you think?

MR. RANNEBERGER: Oh, I think in a few weeks. I mean, this is just a question of promulgating new licensing procedures. So it's fairly simple, but it's not something that's going to be done by next week.

QUESTION: Okay, could you answer the second question, Ambassador, which was, essentially, aren't we reverting back to a pre-1994 policy?

MR. RANNEBERGER: I don't think we look at it that way. I think that some of the restrictions on remittances were placed in 1994. The restrictions on direct flights were placed in 1996. The medicines is actually taking a 1994 step that was in -- that legislation was the first to permit the sale of medicine. It set up certain criteria for verifying end use. We now have four years' experience, and think we can do what that legislation requires in a manner that is simpler and more expeditious.

But the focus of these is very much on the future -- on building a different Cuba and on preparing the Cuban people to build a different Cuba.

QUESTION: The Secretary spoke of legislation -- that the Administration has spoken with Senators Helms and Dodd and Torricelli about some legislation that has to do with humanitarian aid. Can you please expand on that? Does that mean only donations and expansion of the stuff that's permitted now, or what does that mean? And also, the expedited licensing you're talking about for the sale of drugs -- are we still talking about a ban on all medicines that were developed in the last 25 years and stuff like that? What are we talking about, and can you explain that a bit more?

AMB. DAVIDOW: Well, why don't I have Mike answer the question on the drug issue.

MR. RANNEBERGER: Sure. On the medicine issue, there are no medical sales that are banned to Cuba. The only requirement is that there be end-use verification so that these items cannot be used for certain purposes -- whether it's torture, resale, biotechnological industry and the like. By expediting, what we're talking about here is essentially streamlining the process so that it will be quicker and simpler. There are a number of ways to do that, which will also mean, however, that the end-use monitoring requirement will be there. But there are ways to simplify that.

Certain drugs, for example, clearly don't need extensive end-use monitoring; I mean, aspirin and the like.

QUESTION: Are these mostly drugs that are exempt from this end-use monitoring requirement?

MR. RANNEBERGER: Well, I'm not going to get into the details of how this will be worked out. What I'm saying is, there is an end-use monitoring requirement. The statute basically says that we have to assure ourselves that drugs will not be misused. But I'm saying that conceivably, there are certain obvious very simple drugs that can't be misused. But we have not worked out the details of the regulations.

Whatever we do will be strictly consistent with the Cuban Democracy Act, which does require end-use monitoring.

MR. FOLEY: We're going to take one more question in English, and then start taking some questions in Spanish.

QUESTION: Can you answer the question on the legislation?

AMB. DAVIDOW: All right. On the legislation, just by way of background, in recent months there have been two approaches discussed on the Hill. One was enshrined or crystallized in legislation which was introduced, I believe, already been introduced by Senator Dodd and Congressman Torres, which would lift the embargo as it relates to the sale of food.

There was another idea which was propounded by the Cuban-American National Foundation and Senator Helms -- and I am not, frankly, sure whether this is still a live idea on the Hill -- that would have made Cuba eligible for humanitarian food donations a la PL-480, the kind of law that we have that gives US Government supplies to the poor in other countries.

Obviously, there's a fair amount of ferment on the Hill. We would like to see a bipartisan effort come together; have discussions up there. We would be willing to participate, but we go in with no offer on the table other than we're willing to talk about this in the hope that something can be done.

QUESTION: So the Administration would consider endorsing, although it hasn't yet, a bill that would lift sanctions on the sale of food?

AMB. DAVIDOW: No, I'm saying all we're willing to do is talk at this time. Do you want to make a point?

AMB. DOBBINS: Well, I just want to mention, there was another proposal that was put forward by the Cuban-American Foundation, which was a proposal to allow US Aid funds to be used to buy food, which would be distributed by CARITAS and other humanitarian relief organizations.

So there's a variety of proposals from across the political spectrum. And our view is that with that range of proposals, surely there's something that the Congress and the Administration should be able to agree on. We're not endorsing any of those proposals at the moment. We're not saying that we would endorse any one of them. What we're saying is that with the Cuban-American Foundation, Senator Helms, Senator Dodd and others each having put forward different proposals which affect the transfer of food, that there should be something in there that can secure the requisite bipartisan support.

QUESTION: Have you all been in touch with the Cuban Government about this change? And might these changes also encompass medical equipment that might be needed, aside from medicines?

AMB. DAVIDOW: No, yes. (Laughter.)

MR. RANNEBERGER: Medical equipment is treated exactly the same as medicine.

AMB. DAVIDOW: Is that it?

QUESTION: One more question about the embargo, because you're leaving one big loophole open. What are the circumstances under which the embargo can be lifted? What must Castro do to fulfill whatever American conditions are?

MR. RANNEBERGER: They're covered in Helms-Burton; they're also covered in the report that I mentioned that we submitted last year. So, I mean, they're quite clear-cut. But straightforwardly, they have to begin allowing political parties to organize; they have to schedule genuine free elections; they need to release political prisoners; and they need to move toward democracy.

It's something virtually every government in the Western Hemisphere has done, something virtually every government in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union have done. It's well understood. And if they're prepared to do it, we're prepared to reciprocate.

MR. FOLEY: Thank you very much. We're going to start taking questions in Spanish now.

For additional information on U.S.-Cuban Relations, click here. [End of Document]

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