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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Dan Fisk
Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs

May 22, 2008

Dan Fisk
Yesterday, May 21, the President hosted a White House event to commemorate a “Day of Solidarity with the Cuba.” Through this event, the President and those in attendance joined with other governments, non-governmental organizations, and global democracy and human rights activists in expressing support for and solidarity with the Cuban people.

May 21 allowed the world to shine a spotlight on Cuba, especially a ray of hope on those imprisoned in Cuba for their beliefs. The Day of Solidarity occurs during a period when Cubans all over the island commemorate Cuban patriots who have suffered at the hands of the regime for the cause of freedom and human rights. And it coincides with a period in Cuban history that marks Cuban Independence Day (May 20), the death of José Martí (May 19, 1895), and the death of Pedro Luis Boitel (May 25, 1972).

This year’s Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People comes at a time when the Cuban government has announced a series of measures that it claims will improve the lives of the Cuban people and after it has signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. If the Cuban Government is serious about beginning a process of meaningful change, it will begin by unconditionally releasing all political prisoners and ending the practice of imprisoning people for simply disagreeing with their government.

Thank you for joining me today and I look forward to our exchange.

Ricardo, from Marietta,GA writes:
Would you say that we really don't have an embargo? Aren't we selling the Cuban government food? Don't we have Governors,Representatives and Senators going to Cuba to drum-up business? Embargo? what embargo? Please explain Thanks,


Dan Fisk

First, you have to remember that the Cuban regime has an embargo on the Cuban people. The regime restricts the ability of Cubans to engage in a range of activities that we take for granted. Further, this embargo by the Cuban dictatorship restricts the ability of Cubans to pursue economic opportunity. Cuba is a place of political and economic repression.

Second, the United States has a longstanding set of policies to deny resources to the Cuban regime while allowing for avenues to help address the humanitarian needs of the Cuban people. You are correct that we allow the donation and sale of food and agricultural products to Cuba. And you are correct that individuals can travel to Cuba in an effort to sell food and agricultural products. But we also require that sales be through cash-in-advance or third country financing mechanisms that limit the Cuban regime’s ability to bilk U.S. entities – Cuba is a notorious dead beat when it comes to paying back its international financial obligations – and ensure that we are not providing credit to a repressive state. We also allow the donation and sale of medicines and medical supplies. And there are legal ways for Americans to travel to Cuba to provide donated food and medicines. The Cuban people’s inability to enjoy a healthy diet and have access to medicines and medical equipment is a result of the Cuban dictatorship’s policies. The fact is that the people of the United States are the largest providers of humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people in the world – some $240 million worth in 2007. We want to get aid directly to the Cuban people. This is not to deny that we have restrictions on other economic engagement with the Cuban regime; we do have restrictions on general investment and business in Cuba. The reason for this is simple: in Cuba, the regime has to be your business partner. This is true for those third-country entities currently in Cuba. And it is the Cuban regime that benefits first and foremost by this third-country economic presence in Cuba. Thanks for your question.

Rob, from London, England writes:
Hi,I recently visited Cuba and found it to be a fascinating place where the people were really happy to discuss all aspects of international policy.

The question arose many times as to why people from England were able to travel freely to Cuba when the people from the United States were restricted ?

Dan Fisk
Rob, thank you for your question. One of the elements of United States policy is to deny revenue to the Castro dictatorship. It may seem counterintuitive but the Cuban government has pursued a policy to exploit tourism for the regime’s benefit, not the benefit of the Cuban people. Tourism is one of the largest sources of revenue for the regime. Hotels in Cuban may have a brand name on them, but they are revenue generators for the regime and the non-Cuban hotel chains generally have management arrangements with the Cuban government. Also, the Cubans who work at tourist facilities are essentially Cuban state employees; the regime makes the labor decisions. Further, the third-party hotel management company pays the Cuban government in hard currency for the employees and the Cuban government then pays the Cuban workers in the local currency. The Cuban employee does not get the amount paid to the Cuban government, and there are many reports of the regime requiring that employees turn over a percentage of any tips they receive. Cuba, at the direction of the regime, operates on a “wage slavery” system.

We respect the sovereignty of every country to pursue the policy of its choice towards Cuba. But I am amazed at the moral indignation often generated towards the treatment of workers in other Latin American countries and the complete silence regarding the treatment of Cuban workers. We do not want Americans to subsidize this abusive Cuban system and ask that other countries encourage their companies to engage in fair labor practices in Cuba.

Jennifer, from Washington, DC writes:
Bush JUST stated that "now that the Cuban people have access to computers, they should be allowed to have heightened internet access." Does the United States intend to allow Cubans to connect to the internet via the underwater cable running 20 Kil north of Havana to facilitate this increased access to the internet?

Dan Fisk
Jennifer, it may interest you to know that the Bush Administration authorized a U.S. company in 2002 to connect Cuba to an existing fiber-optic cable in the Atlantic. That authorization is still valid. The fact is that the Cuban regime has not been interested in providing the Cuban people with Internet access. Further, the President has twice offered to license U.S. non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups to provide Internet-ready computers to the Cuban people if the regime ends it restrictions on Internet access. We are still waiting for the regime to allow Internet access to the Cuban people. I hope you are asking the rulers in Havana the same question.

Darryl, from Havana writes:
Is there any chance that the Cuba policy of the U.S. might be reviewed?

Dan Fisk
Darryl, the United States Government constantly reviews and assesses it foreign policy towards Cuba. The change in our regulations announced by President Bush yesterday to allow Americans to send mobile phones to their relatives in Cuba is an example of this process. However, the core of our policy -- supporting the restoration of fundamental human rights to the Cuban people -- remains steadfast.

Chinesa, from KCMO writes:
What is Cuba Solidarity Day?

Dan Fisk
Dear Chinesa,

A Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People is an international event to express solidarity with the Cuban people who desire to live in a free, just, and prosperous Cuba where their fundamental human rights will be respected and defended. May 21 was chosen to commemorate this Day of Solidarity and the date occurs during a period when Cubans on the island traditionally commemorate and recognize their sisters and brothers who fought and are fighting for a free Cuba. The President of the United States also issued a Proclamation to commemorate those who are suffering in Cuba for their beliefs, especially Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. The President’s Proclamation can be found at: /news/releases/2008/05/20080520-13.html.

Emma, from Sydney, Australia writes:
By what international law has the USA any wright to interfere in the governance of Independent Cuba?

Dan Fisk
Emma, The United States is calling for the Government of Cuba to implement and uphold its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Today, Cubans are harassed, detained, and arrested for distributing copies of these international documents, even though Cuba voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and signed the ICCPR in February 2008. The ICCPR provides for the humane treatment of prisoners, but over 200 Cuban prisoners of conscience suffer in Cuban prisons – their only crime being that they sought to publicly and freely express their views. Article 19 of the ICCPR provides that “everyone shall have the right – to seek, receive, and impart information ... regardless of frontiers,” but in Cuba, access to information and the right to impart information are restricted. Imagine that if you were living in Havana instead of Sydney, you could be detained, even arrested and sentenced and incarcerated for the vague crime of "dangerousness" which is any act that can be construed as endangering the Cuban regime.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
The Castro regime has controlled Cuba for Fidel's entire adult life. The oppression continues with Castro's brother, and even though there is superficial "freedoms," political prisoners languish in jails. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the prisoners? How can the Cuban Solidarity Day bring about real change? Thank You

Dan Fisk
A day of solidarity is important for many reasons, Kim. First and foremost, it is a direct message to Cuba’s political prisoners that they are not alone. Second, it is a call to leadership – an effort to focus other international actors on an important issue in Cuba. And third, it puts the focus on where the problem is, namely the way the government of Cuba treats its citizens. The Castro brothers have controlled Cuba and oppressed its people for half a century. President Bush believes there is a light – a light of freedom -- at the end of the tunnel for Cuba’s political prisoners and more generally for the Cuban people. President Bush’s message at the May 21 White House event in solidarity with the Cuban people was a message of hope, not despair, a message that challenges the Cuban regime to live up to its international commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the latter which Raul Castro’s government signed earlier this year. President Bush believes that putting attention on the nature and behavior of dictatorships can positively impact events and help create the circumstances to empower oppressed peoples to gain their freedom. This moral exercise cannot be – and should not be – the only thing countries do to help oppressed peoples. But we have seen in other instances that these types of solidarity activities help sustain those struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights. Thank you for your questions.

Alejandro, from NY, USA writes:
Hi Mr. Fisk,Could you please explain, at this point, Why has President Bush not yet had a meeting with Raul Castro?

Seriously, Raul Castro could be easily trying to move to a more Democratic Government while the US might be still giving it's back to Cuba.

Fidel Castro is out, so as the US Government should leave it's strong ban and try to make Cuba, it's most important Neighbor.

Thanks This comment is from a Costa Rican.

Dan Fisk
Alejandro, the question is not when President Bush or any American president should sit down with Cuba's dictator; the question is, when will Cuba's unelected leaders begin a serious dialogue with the Cuban people? The issue in Cuba is the regime's treatment of the Cuban people. If Raul Castro is trying to genuinely move Cuba in a more democratic direction, he can do so without talking to Washington. Today, for example, he could unconditionally release the hundreds of political prisoners his government holds. Also today, Raul Castro could remove restrictions on the media in Cuba and on the rights of Cubans to speak freely, assemble, and pursue economic opportunities. We think it is time for Cubans to be free and to have a direct say in how they are governed and who governs them. And I look forward to a day when an American President can sit down with a freely-elected Cuban President.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Director Fisk: With Cuba still about 90 miles off our coast. With new leadership on the horizon. Do you think there will be any changes or will Cuba still just be 90 miles off our coast? Thank You

Dan Fisk
Cliff, “new leadership” is a relative term in Cuba since it is Fidel Castro’s relative, Raul, who now has the title as head of state in Cuba. The answer to the question of who has the power remains largely the same as it has for the past 50 years: The Castro brothers have the power in Cuba. What often gets overlooked in the “talking head” analysis of the recent transfer of titles to Raul from Fidel Castro is that Fidel remains the head of the Cuban Communist Party, which remains the most powerful political organ in that country.

What is of more interest than the Cuban gerontocracy is the growth of a visible and vibrant independent civil society. Students and other groups are more actively calling for change, for freedom of thought, and for respect for fundamental human rights of the Cuban people. These activists and average citizens are Cuba’s future.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
What will we do to encourage the new leader of Cuba to do to promote democracy?

Dan Fisk
Michael, the May 21 Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People is one of dozens of actions the United States Government, civil society, and others are taking to help Cubans achieve their desire for a free and democratic Cuba. Events were held in dozens of other countries and across the United States. The Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People shined a spotlight on the plight of Cuba’s suffering political prisoners. Commemorating May 21 is not our only activity to support the Cuban people’s aspirations for political and economic freedom. Since 2001, the Untied States has stepped up its efforts to empower the Cuban people by providing almost $366 million in assistance for democracy promotion and information initiatives. This amount includes our efforts to get uncensored, timely, and accurate information to the Cuban people through Radio and TV Marti – in fact, the President’s remarks yesterday were broadcast live to the island. It includes funds to non-governmental organizations who support independent civil society activists in Cuba. And it includes our efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the families of Cuba’s political prisoners. We are committed to continuing these efforts until the Cuban people enjoy the day when they can freely decide how they are governed and who governs them.

Collin, from Washington, DC writes:
Why does the United States not allow Cuba to connect to the fiber-optic cable a few miles off the coast so that their citizenry with have wider access to the internet?

Dan Fisk
Collin, in 2002, the Bush Administration authorized a U.S. company to connect Cuba to an existing fiber-optic cable in the Atlantic. That authorization remains valid. We support the Cuban people's access to the Internet.

Cody, from South Carolina writes:
What does Cuba Soliditary Day exemplify to the American citizen? What values are to be upheld by this?

Dan Fisk
Cody, the Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People seeks to send a direct message to Cuba’s political prisoners that they are not alone. It also is a day to reflect upon the freedoms we enjoy and to be reminded that the people of Cuba are denied those very freedoms, the very fundamental rights that we believe form the essence of human dignity. And it is a day to express support for the many brave Cubans who struggle to secure their rights. I encourage you to read the President's Proclamation on the Day of Solidarity at: /news/releases/2008/05/20080520-13.html

With Cuba Solidarity Day here, do you think that this will encourage the Cuban government to work with the United States on future endeavors or is this something that the USA will only acknowledge and it will be business as usual for the Cubans?

Dan Fisk

I hope it is not "business as usual" in Cuba. That would mean that Cubans continue to suffer repression, that a Cuban can be jailed for voicing dissent from a governmental policy, that a Cuban can be dismissed from employment for exercising free speech, that a child can be denied an education for questioning some ideological orthodoxy. With the Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People we hope that people will gain a better understanding of the reality that is today's Cuba, which is a reality of political and economic repression. But we also see the Day of Solidarity as a day of hope. As President Bush said yesterday, "as surely as the waves beat against the Malecon, the tide of freedom will reach Cuba's shores." Supporting that "tide of freedom" is central to May 21 as a Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People. Thank you for your question.

Tim, from Sydney, Australia writes:
Dear Dan - do you think Cuba would be better off as part of the US, like Puerto Rico? Isn't that what you've been trying to say for some time? best wishes - Tim

Dan Fisk
Tim, Cuba will be better off when 11 million Cubans are free -- free to express themselves, free to determine how they want to live, free to determine who governs them, free to determine how their children are educated, free to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is our fundamental message.

John, from Washington, DC writes:
I understand there is a large and growing movement within Cuba of people that are actively working to bring down their country's dictatorship and establish a democracy. What is the U.S. doing to support them?

Dan Fisk
There are increasing numbers of Cubans who are calling for change in their country, and there is a growing movement of independent civil society activists. One element of U.S. policy is to support these individuals. We do this through our efforts to get timely, accurate information to Cuba and break the regime's information blockade on the Cuban people. Radio and TV Marti are the primarily means for this. For example, the event here at the White House for the Day of the Solidarity with the Cuban People was broadcast live to Cuba. We also provide humanitarian support, including humanitarian aid to the families of political prisoners. Further, we authorize U.S. non-governmental organizations to provide assistance to activists in Cuba. Thank you for your question.

Doug, from The Bahamas writes:
The media seems pleased that Fidel has had a peaceful hand off of power to his brother Raul, but isn't Raul a thug worse than Fidel? Didn't Raul even have his longtime friend, General Ochoa, executed for disagreeing with the Cuban revolution? Isn't it true that Cubans are no better off with Raul than they were with Fidel?

Dan Fisk
Doug, you are correct about Raul Castro and his record. He has been Fidel Castro's enforcer all these years. And as we seen over the past few months, the brutality of the Cuban dictatorship remains unchanged. Why people are pleased with this change from one Castro to another is beyond me. Cuba is still a dicatatorship.

Dan Fisk
Thank you for participating in today’s Ask the White House. As the President noted, the May 21 day of solidarity was an opportunity to honor the Cuban people; it was a day to reflect on the plight of the Cuban people suffering from political and economic repression; and it was a day of hope, as the spirit of the Cuban people cannot be broken. This indomitable aspiration for freedom was reflected in the words of the late Cuban patriot Pedro Luis Boitel: “They can kill and destroy my body, but never my spirit. This they can never bend.” Boitel gave up his physical life, dying of a hunger strike while imprisoned by the Castro regime for believing in the right of all Cubans to enjoy fundamental rights that many of us take for granted. His spirit lives on among all freedom-loving Cubans. And it reminds us that life in Cuba will not fundamentally change until the Cuban government does.

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