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. A prior post discussed the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy. This post covers that afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. Subsequent posts will review comments about U.S.-Cuba relations offered by the White House Press Secretary at a July 20 press conference and the reactions to these events.
Secretary Kerry’s Opening Statement
The conference was opened by Kerry, saying it was “an historic day; a day for removing barriers.” This day was welcomed by the U.S. as a “new beginning in its relationship with the people and the Government of Cuba. We are determined to live as good neighbors on the basis of mutual respect, and we want all of our citizens – in the U.S. and in Cuba – to look into the future with hope. Therefore we celebrate this day . . . because today we begin to repair what was damaged and to open what has been closed for many years.”
His prior discussion with Minister Rodriguez, Kerry said, “touched on a wide range of issues of mutual concern including cooperation on law enforcement, counter-narcotics, telecommunications, the internet, environmental issues, human rights, including trafficking in persons. And of course, we also discussed the opening of our embassies.”
This milestone, however, Kerry added, “does not signify an end to differences that still separate our governments, but it does reflect the reality that the Cold War ended long ago, and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement, and that we have begun a process of full normalization that is sure to take time but will also benefit people in both Cuba and the United States.” Indeed, “the process of fully normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba will go on. It may be long and complex. But along the way, we are sure to encounter a bump here and there and moments even of frustration. Patience will be required. But that is all the more reason to get started now on this journey, this long overdue journey.”
Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s Opening Statement
Rodriguez opened in English by saying he had “a constructive and respectful meeting with [the] Secretary . . . [and] an exchange on the issues discussed by Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama during their historical encounter at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the current status of the bilateral relations, and the progress achieved since the announcements of December 17th, 2014, including Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the expansion of official exchanges on issues of common interest, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies.”
The Cuban people and government recognize “President Obama for his determination to work for the lifting of the blockade, for urging Congress to eliminate it, and for his willingness to adopt executive measures that modify the implementation of some aspects of this policy. Their scope is still limited, but these are steps taken in the right direction.”
Cuba also “emphasized that, in the meantime, the President of the [U.S.] can continue using his executive powers to make a significant contribution to the dismantling of the blockade, not to pursue changes in Cuba, something that falls under our exclusive sovereignty, but to attend to the interests of U.S. citizens.”
Rodriguez also “emphasized that the total lifting of the blockade, the return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo, as well as the full respect for the Cuban sovereignty and the compensation to our people for human and economic damages are crucial to be able to move towards the normalization of relations.”
“We both ratified our interest in normalizing bilateral relations, knowing that this will be a long and complex process, which will require the willingness of both countries. There are profound differences between Cuba and the [U.S.] with regard to our views about the exercise of human rights by all persons all over the world, and also issues related to international law, which will inevitably persist. But we strongly believe that we can both cooperate and coexist in a civilized way, based on the respect for these differences and the development of a constructive dialogue oriented to the wellbeing of our countries and peoples, and this continent, and the entire world.”
He also “expressed to the Secretary of State that he will be welcome in Cuba on the occasion of the ceremony to reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana [on August 14].”
Rodriguez then essentially repeated these comments in his native Spanish language. He also “reiterated our invitation to all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to travel to Cuba, as they do to the rest of the world, and to the companies of that country to take advantage on an equal footing of the opportunities offered by Cuba.”
Question and Answer Session
The press then asked the following questions, and the two officials provided these answers.
- QUESTION: The first question had the following three parts: (a) What was the U.S. position with respect to Rodriguez’ statement that only the lifting of the trade embargo and the return of Guantanamo Bay would lend meaning to today’s historic events and that Cuba did not want any U.S. interference in its domestic policies? (b) What changes in Cuban human rights would the U.S. be pursing? (c) What changes would Cuba be willing to make at the request of the U.S. before the lifting of the embargo and return of Guantanamo?
SECRETARY KERRY: “[T[here are things that Cuba would like to see happen; there are things the United States would like to see happen.” But that does not mean that these things will happen.
“With respect to the embargo, President Obama . . . has called on Congress to lift the embargo.” The Administration hopes “that the embargo at the appropriate time will in fact be lifted and that a great deal more foundation can be built for this relationship.”
At this time, there is no discussion and no intention on our part at this moment to alter the existing [Guantanamo Bay] lease treaty or other arrangements with respect to the naval station, but we understand that Cuba has strong feelings about it. I can’t tell you what the future will bring but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side.”
The U.S., on the other hand, has “expressed and we will always express – because it’s part of the United States foreign policy; it’s part of our DNA as a country – and that is our view of human rights and our thoughts about it. We have shared good thoughts on that. We’ve had good exchanges. And as you know, part of this arrangement that took place involved an exchange of people as well as the release of some people. And our hope is that as time goes on, we’ll continue to develop that.”
What we did talk about today was how to further the relationship most effectively, and perhaps through the creation of a bilateral committee that might work together to continue to put focus on these issues.”
FOREIGN MINISTER RODRIGUEZ: “In recent times, the U.S. Government has recognized that the blockade against Cuba is a wrong policy, causing isolation and bringing about humanitarian damages and privations or deprivations to our people, and has committed to engage Congress in a debate with the purpose of lifting the blockade. . . . [T]he President of the U.S. [also] has adopted some executive measures which are still limited in scope but which are oriented in the right direction.”
In exchanges with Secretary Kerry we “have not spoken about conditions but rather about the need to move on through the dialogue on the basis of sovereign equality and mutual respect and create a civilized behavior, despite the profound differences that exist between both governments, to better attend to the interests of our respective peoples.”
“[I]t is very important that today a [Cuban] embassy was reopened in Washington and that diplomatic instruments could be created ensuring full mutual recognition, which is a practical contribution to the development of bilateral dialogue. . . . [For] Cuba, the normalization of relations presupposes the solution of a series of pending problems, [including] “the ceasing of the blockade against Cuba, the return of the territory of Guantanamo, and the full respect for the sovereignty of our country.” We also confirmed “that there are conditions . . . [for expanding] the dialogue . . . with the purpose of expanding mutually beneficial cooperation between our . . . countries and, of course, taking into account the fact that the situation between the U.S. and Cuba is asymmetric because our . . . country has not implemented any discriminatory policy against American citizens or enterprises. Cuba does not implement any unilateral coercive economic measure against the U.S. Cuba does not occupy any piece of U.S. territory. Precisely through the dialogue, we are supposed to create the proper conditions to move on towards the normalization of relations.”
- QUESTION: This was a three-part question: (a) What are the advantages [for Cuba’s having an embassy in the U.S,] taking into consideration that the blockade is still in place? (b) What are the advantages for the U.S.’ having an embassy in Havana? (c) Will the U.S. in the future respect the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations?
FOREIGN MINISTER RODRIGUEZ: “The fact that diplomatic relations have been re-established and that embassies have been reopened in both capitals shows first and foremost the mutual willingness to move on towards the improvement of the relations between our both countries. Second, new instruments are [being] created to further deepen this dialogue. . . . Third, . . . the basis for the normal functioning of these diplomatic missions would be the purposes and principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter: the principles of international law and the regulations containing the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations. Therefore, we have reached agreements in these areas, and I can say that Cuba would absolutely respect those provisions. Cuban diplomats will strictly abide by those rules, and we will create in Cuba every necessary condition for the normal functioning of the new U.S. Embassy in our country.”
SECRETARY KERRY: Part “of the negotiations leading up to the opening of the embassies was . . . coming to agreement with respect to all of the diplomatic functions. . . . [That led to an] “agreement which is in accord with the Vienna Conventions and meets both of our countries’ understandings of what is needed and what is appropriate at this moment in time. It could be subject to change later in the future, obviously, but for the moment we are satisfied and we are living within the structure of the Vienna Convention.”
- QUESTION: A three-part question: (a) In “your discussions today, did you establish any sort of road map for talks going forward? (b) If so, what are your priorities? (c) As a result, do you envision a political opening in Cuba on issues such as greater freedom of speech and assembly, and also the legalization of opposition parties?”
FOREIGN MINISER RODRIGUEZ: We will “welcome Secretary Kerry in the next few weeks in Havana to continue our talks, to establish the appropriate mechanisms to expand the dialogue in areas related to bilateral cooperation oriented to the common benefit, and to retake our talks about the substantial aspects of the bilateral relations I have mentioned before, which will determine this process towards the normalization of relations.”
The “political opening in Cuba happened in the year 1959. . . . We Cubans feel very happy with way in which we manage our internal affairs. We feel optimistic when it comes to the solution of our difficulties and we are very zealous of our sovereignty, so we will maintain in permanent consultations with our people to change everything that needs to be changed based on the sovereign and exclusive willingness of Cubans.”
- QUESTION: A four-part question: (a) Is “this new era of relations with Cuba [based on a] recognition that the U.S. policies of isolating countries in Latin America that differ from . . . [U.S.] political views don’t work?” (b) “Do the recent trips to Caracas of Mr. Thomas Shannon [of the U.S. State Department] . . . [constitute a] beginning of trying to rebuild the relationship with Venezuela?” (c) Is it possible [for Cuba] to have relations with the U.S. when the U.S. is giving every signal that it is not willing to lift the blockade or the embargo as it is called here and cannot withdraw from Guantanamo?” (d) Has the U.S. after failing to change Cuba from the outside “now implemented a creative way to try to change Cuba from the inside?”
FOREIGN MINISTER RODRIGUEZ: The “fact that diplomatic relations are being established and that we are reopening both embassies is a show of the mutual willingness to move on towards the normalization of bilateral relations.” [Last] December President Obama recognized that the U.S. policy against Cuba had been wrong, causing damages and hardships to the Cuban people, and causing isolation to the U.S.”
The “re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies are appreciated by my country as a signal of progress towards a civilized relationship, despite the differences, and it would lend some meaning only if the blockade is lifted, if we are able to solve the pending problems for more than one century, and if we are able create a new type of relationship between the U.S. and Cuba different from what has existed all along the history.”
Cuba feels “that [President Obama’s] recognition of the need to lift the blockade against Cuba, that during the talks that we have had, including this morning’s talks, we have perceived respect for Cuba’s independence to the full determination of our people, [that the two countries] have talked, on the basis of absolute equal sovereignty despite differences shows that the dialogue is fruitful and that the U.S. and Cuba, by a mandate of the American people and the Cuban people, are in the condition to move on towards a future of relations different from the one accumulated throughout our history, responding precisely to the best interests of our citizens.”
“There is an international order. International law is recognized as the civilized behavior to be adopted by states. There are universally accepted principles, and these have been the ones who have allowed us to reach this date and the ones that . . . will reorient our behavior in our relations in the future.”
SECRETARY KERRY: With respect to Cuba, “passions ran deep . . . to this day in the [U.S.]. There are many Cuban-Americans who have contributed in so many ways to life in our country, some of whom are still opposed to a change, some of whom believe it is time to change.”
“When I served in the [U.S.] Senate, there were many of us who believed over a period of time that our policy of isolating [Cuba] was simply not working; we were isolating ourselves in many ways. And we felt that after all those years it was time to try something else. President Obama is doing that now. And it is clear that we have chosen a new path, a different path. Already, people tell me who have visited Cuba that they feel a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. And I am convinced that as we work through these issues we are going to find a better path forward that speaks to the needs of both peoples, both countries.”
With respect to Venezuela, Counselor of the State Department, Ambassador Tom Shannon has had several conversations with the Venezuelans. We had a very productive conversation prior to the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The [U.S.] has said many times we would like to have a normal relationship with Venezuela and have reached out in an effort to try to change the dialogue, change the dynamics. There are differences that we have with President Maduro and his government, and we raise those differences and we talk about them.”
“Just today, Foreign Minister Rodriguez and I talked specifically about Venezuela and our hopes that we can find a better way forward, because all of the region will benefit if no country is being made a scapegoat for problems within a country, and in fact, all countries are working on solving those problems.”
“We hope that our diplomatic relations with Cuba can encourage not only greater dialogue with Venezuela but perhaps even efforts to try to help Colombia to end its more than 50-years war and perhaps even other initiatives.”
“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. Dep’t of State, Press Availability with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (July 20, 2015). A video and audio recording of the press conference is available on C-Span.