On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside that event. Prior posts discussed the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy and the joint press conference later that day at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. This post reviews the extensive July 20 comments about the U.S.-Cuba relationship by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. A subsequent post will review the reactions to these events.
Emphasizing Secretary Kerry’s Comments
Earnest first underscored Secretary Kerry’s comments about the reopening of embassies by saying, “The [U.S.] welcomes today’s historic opening of the embassy of the [U.S.] in Havana, Cuba, and the opening of the Cuban embassy here in Washington, D.C. Today’s openings are the result of respectful dialogue between the [U.S.] and the Republic of Cuba following the December 17th announcements by President Obama and President Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations between our two nations.”
“This is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. We look forward to working collaboratively to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people after more than a half-century of discord. Beginning today, U.S. diplomats in Havana will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island of Cuba, with the Cuban government, Cuban civil society, and even ordinary Cuban citizens.”
“We look forward to collaborating with the Cuban government on issues of common interest, including counterterrorism and disaster response, and we are confident that the best way to advance universal values like freedom of speech and assembly is through more engagement with the Cuban people.”
U.S. Ambassador to Cuba
The Press Secretary said he did “not have a specific commitment in terms of when [a nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Cuba] would be announced or who that person would be. We certainly do believe that U.S. interests in Cuba would be best represented by somebody serving as the ambassador there.” Later in the conference, when pressed, he said despite anticipated resistance to the appointment of anyone to that position by some Senate Republicans, he expected such an a nomination to be made by the President.
The “current Chief of Mission is a gentleman named Jeffrey DeLaurentis. He is somebody who had previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is somebody who has done two previous stints at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and somebody who has served in a wide variety of diplomatic roles, including as the political counselor to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in Geneva, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, even did a stint here at the White House at the National Security Council.
So this is somebody . . . with a wide range of experience in a variety of roles, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in the ability of Ambassador DeLaurentis to represent U.S. interests on the island in Cuba. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that the President would nominate somebody to serve at the rank of ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.”
DeLaurentis’ “top agenda item will be to represent the interests of the [U.S.] on the island. In some cases, that is going to involve making sure that U.S. businesses and U.S. individuals that are engaged in commercial activity on the island of Cuba, that their interests are represented and protected on the island. That’s certainly one reason that we’ve seen some bipartisan support in Congress for this policy change.”
“But obviously diplomats who are working at the new U.S. embassy in Cuba will also have the ability to more freely travel throughout Cuba and to interact and engage the Cuban people and, yes, even some members of the political opposition. And we believe that that will better represent the interest of the [U.S.] on the island.”
Cuban Human Rights.
The change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba “is consistent with the national security interests of the [U.S. and] . . . with the kinds of values that this President and previous Presidents have aggressively advocated all around the world. Those values are the respect for the basic human rights that we hold dear in this country — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press.”
“It’s clear that Cuba has significant progress to make in all of those areas. What’s also clear is that the previous [U.S.] . . . [did not] really make much progress [on these issues]. The President believed that a change was necessary. And we’re hopeful that in the coming years we’ll start to see the kind of respect for basic human rights on the island of Cuba that the U.S.] has long advocated.”
[Moreover, an] overwhelming percentage of the Cuban people are supportive and optimistic about this change in policy because of a chance that is has to improve their prospects on the island nation of Cuba.”
“So the President is looking forward to these kinds of changes taking effect [so] that the Cuban people and the Cuban government start to enjoy the benefits and see the results from greater engagement with the [U.S.]”
“In the days after this agreement was announced back in December, a substantial number of individuals who had previously been held by the Cuban government for their political views were released. And that’s an indication that the Cuban government is trying to at least change their reputation when it comes to these issues.“
“But we have got a long list of concerns.” In addition, “for a long time the U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba became a source of irritation in the relationship between the [U.S.] and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. And by removing that source of irritation, the [U.S.] can now focus attention of . . . other countries in the Western Hemisphere on the Cuban government’s rather sordid human rights record.”
“And again, that is part of the strategy for seeking to engage the Cuban people more effectively, and bring about the kind of change that we would like to see inside of Cuba.”
U.S. Leverage To Effect Change in Cuba.
As a result of the change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba, the U.S. will “have the leverage of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere that now are no longer distracted by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. . . . In fact, . . . we’ve remove[d] that irritant and allowed the rest of the Western Hemisphere to focus more closely on the conduct and policies of the Cuban government. That certainly is a positive development.”
“[A]ny perceived leverage [for the U.S.] that was included in an embargo did not succeed in generating the kind of outcome that its most ardent advocates believe is important. We didn’t see the kind of progress on human rights reforms that we would like to see while that embargo was in place.”
That is “why the President has called for the removal of the embargo and . . . to take steps to restore diplomatic ties between our two nations. [T]he policy of isolation . . . [has] failed and it was time to try a different approach to succeed in achieving the goal that we all share, which is a Cuba that thrives and a Cuban government that respects and even protects the basic human rights of their citizens.”
“[P]art of this agreement included ensuring that Cuban citizens have greater access to the Internet and greater access to information, and we believe that, equipped with that knowledge, that that’s a good thing for the Cuban people.”
“What is persuasive [about this enhanced U.S. leverage] is that most public polls indicate that upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban population actually support this policy change. . . . [This] is an indication that it’s not just the U.S. interests that are best served by this policy; it’s actually the interests of the Cuban people that are best served by this policy as well.”
This “is something that we can evaluate in the years to come. I certainly am not going to make you wait 55 years to evaluate the success of this policy, but it’s clear that the previous policy could be evaluated over 55 years and it clearly did not bring about the kind of results that we’d like to see.”
 White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/20/15.