For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 21, 2008
Press Gaggle by Dana Perino and Dan Fisk, NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
9:39 A.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hi, everyone. I'm going to do the schedule quickly and I'm going to introduce, then, Dan Fisk to you.
The President had his normal briefings at 8:00 a.m. At 10:00 a.m., he will meet the National Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George Lisicki. He was elected National Commander-in-Chief on August 23, 2007, at the VFW 108th National Convention that was held in Kansas City, Missouri. The President has met with the National Commander-in-Chief of the VFW each year of his presidency.
At 10:25 a.m. he will then make remarks on Cuba, as you will find out a little bit more about from Dan Fisk in just a moment. At 12:30 p.m. I'm going to be joined by OMB Director Jim Nussle, to talk about the war supplemental. At 1:25 p.m. the President will meet with the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon. And then at 2:10 p.m. he will sign H.R. 493 -- this is the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008. And I think some of you have asked about that bill in the past, so that signing will happen today.
Let me turn it over to Dan Fisk of the NSC to talk about the President's policy in Cuba, a little bit of news in the speech, and then I'll come back up and take questions on other issues.
MR. FISK: Good morning. The President will host an event today to commemorate a Day of Solidarity with the Cuban people. Through the event at the White House the United States will join other governments, non-governmental organizations and global democracy activists in expressing support for and solidarity with the Cuban people. The purpose of the White House event today, and other events around the United States and internationally, is to draw specific attention to the plight of Cuba's political prisoners and to call for their immediate release.
This is the first Day of Solidarity with the Cuban people. It is our hope that this becomes an annual event until there is a free Cuba. Other international events and activities today will include statements of solidarity by other governments and parliamentarians, and non-governmental organization and other civil society activities including vigils, rallies and religious ceremonies.
In the context of Cuban history, this day comes during a period when Cubans commemorate the death of Jose Marti, Cuba's independence leader who died on May 19th, 1895. It also comes during a period on May 20th that marks the anniversary of Cuba's independence; this is the 106th anniversary of that independence. And it also comes in a period to mark the death of a prominent Cuban student activist, Pedro Luis Boitel, who died in a Cuban prison while on a hunger strike in May of 1972. He died on May 25th. So this period, May 19th to May 25th, is significant for Cubans for a number of historical reasons.
In his remarks today the President will challenge the regime to make its so-called reforms meaningful for the average Cuban. For example, if Cubans can own cell-phones or mobile phones, then they should be allowed to freely and publicly express themselves. If Cubans can own computers, then it would seem that they should be allowed to have unfettered access to the Internet.
The President will also note that many of the products, whether they're mobile phones, DVD players, or computers, are beyond the means of average Cubans. Not only do Cubans suffer from political repression, but also economic repression. They're denied an economy that makes prosperity possible, where it gives them the opportunity to benefit from their talents.
The President will reaffirm his view that real change requires political freedom, and he will challenge the Castro regime to respect and fulfill the obligations it undertook when it signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, one of the other so-called actions by Raul Castro that is supposed to signal a new change in Cuba.
The President will also make reference to a number of political prisoners, this being a day to call attention to them and to honor them, including, for example, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who previously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and who follows the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and who is serving a 25-year sentence for actually advocating peaceful change in Cuba.
As for the efforts of the United States to support political change, the President will note our increased efforts to support the Cuban people and to get uncensored information to the island, especially through Radio and TV Marti. Just as a note, since 2001 this administration has provided nearly $370 million in assistance for democracy assistance programs and broadcasting initiatives.
The President will reiterate his offer from last October to license U.S. NGOs and faith-based groups to provide computers and Internet directly to the Cuban people if the Cuban regime ends its restrictions on Internet access.
And then the President will make an announcement about a policy change. We are modifying our regulations to allow Americans to send mobile phones to family members in Cuba.
I will stop there and be happy to take any questions.
Q Is he going to wade into the whole discussion about engaging U.S. enemies and -- I know that you know that McCain yesterday had a big speech on Cuba and this has been a big issue with the Obama campaign. Is he going to be wading into that discussion at all?
MR. FISK: The President will be talking about his view on Cuba and our policy towards Cuba. This is not about the campaign. This is about this period in Cuban history, not only in terms of historical context, as I mentioned earlier, but in terms of what we are trying to do to support the Cuban people. Our view remains that the issue is not one of Washington versus Havana. It's a matter of the Cuban regime needing to talk to the Cuban people so the Cuban people actually have a say in how their country is governed and who governs them. So in that sense --
Q Is the President going to be talking about whether or not it's a good idea to engage U.S. entities --
MR. FISK: It's not -- today's event is not about -- it's about Cuba and how we see events there.
Q So what is the significance of sending them mobile phones, then, in terms of they have more contact with the outside world, they can talk to their relatives in the United States? What other --
MR. FISK: First of all, since Raul Castro has made these announcements, one is to challenge and say, okay, you're saying Cubans can have access to this, okay, we're going to -- one, we're going to test you, but we think it's the right thing to do. It's consistent with our policy to help empower the Cuba people, to help them communicate amongst themselves, but also with the outside world.
And let me just go back to one data point for you all to keep in mind on the issue of mobile phones in Cuba. From what I understand, the average cost for a mobile phone -- if a Cuban wants to buy one on the island, the average cost is around $120 for a phone, when you and I can go buy for $20 here. They then have to pay another $120 for an activation fee. And again, they have to do all this with hard currency. The average salary for a Cuban is somewhere in the range of $12 to $20 a month. So what we're trying to do is say, okay, you've allowed -- you're allowing Cubans to have access and to own cell phones, fine; we're going to allow Americans with family to send phones there, and again, let them be able to speak amongst themselves.
As the President will note, we also think that if they can speak privately, such a concept as private speech, then they should be allowed to speak publicly.
Q Do cell phones from the U.S. work in Cuba, or do they have to be activated there?
MR. FISK: It's our understanding that they work -- cell phones from the United States work there, as actually there are other services as well.
Q Is it just the hardware or --
Q And is just for family members -- can an American only send a cell phone to Cuba if it's --
MR. FISK: Right now it's consistent with our existing regulations on gift parcels, which is it's from those with family in the United States.
Q Just the hardware, or will Americans be allowed to also support an account?
MR. FISK: Americans will be allowed to send a phone and supporting account.
Q Can you also say, was this speech coordinated in any way with the McCain campaign? Was the campaign given advance notice of what the President was going to be talking about today?
MR. FISK: The NSC is not involved in the campaigns. No coordination was done from my office, or I'm aware anyone else. This was a White House event; these are the President's remarks, it's the President's policy, it's about where we are. It's not a matter of --
MS. PERINO: I'll find out. I don't know specifically if -- on a specific policy change, if that was alerted to the campaign or not, but I'll check.
MR. FISK: I guess from the NSC perspective, no.
Q Thank you, Dan. Is any coordination being made between the three Cuban American members of the House and the one Cuban American senator?
MR. FISK: Coordination in what way?
Q Are they going to be there today?
MR. FISK: They have been invited. I understand that they will be here. We've invited a number of members of Congress. We've invited some representatives -- selected representatives from the diplomatic corps will be there. It's my understanding that the Cuban American members from South Florida, and Congressman Sires, who's a Cuban American House member from New Jersey, have RSVP'd, have accepted to attend the event.
MS. PERINO: But there is plane trouble or air trouble with at least I think two of them --
MR. FISK: Well, for two of the family members, not for the members of the Congress. But to the extent that they will be there, yes, the invitations have been extended.
Q You said that this is about Cuba, but can you clarify the policy in terms of what the difference is between engaging China, for instance, which has a clear record of human rights violations, and not engaging with Cuba, which is 90 miles offshore? Can you clarify what the U.S. policy is in those two countries?
MR. FISK: Well, first, keep in mind that when we deal with China we also -- the President has been very clear, and the Secretary of State and others, about raising human rights concerns. I think one of the key differences at this point is the extent to which the two countries themselves want to engage with the world, to what extent that they are providing some areas of opportunity for their citizens, separating out kind of the historical context of how China policy evolved versus our policy towards Cuba. But fundamentally, I see that there is a difference between how Beijing wants to interact with the world and how Havana wants to act with the world. And that I think becomes a very important criteria for us.
Again, I go back to the point that the Western Hemisphere, through the Inter-American Democratic Charter, has made a decision as a hemisphere that countries have democratic obligations. There is no inter-Asian or Asian democratic charter for others. And we also think that that is something that needs to be taken into account in terms of our approach towards Cuba, that the issue of human rights, democratization, the treatment of one's people is very fundamental to how the United States for more than 30 years has approached our relationships in the Western Hemisphere.
Q It's not a function of size?
MR. FISK: Not a function of size.
Q Do you have any indication that mobile phones will actually be able to reach -- be allowed into the country?
MR. FISK: Well, that will be interesting to see how the Castro regime responds to that. I mean, it seems to me that that's a very fair question and one to be asked of the people in Havana.
Q Two questions, one on the mobile phone issue. How many mobile phones do you expect to be sent from here as a result of this? It sounds like it would be rather limited; we're just talking about family members able to send to other family members. Do you expect it to be --
MR. FISK: Well, let me put this in context. Roughly one in 10 Cubans lives in the United States. There's at least a million and a half of what we would call Cuban Americans on an island of 11 million people. So I mean, I'm not going to tell you it's going to be x number, but if you start from that base, that's a pretty good base to start from.
Q And then second, broader question, do you see anything encouraging with the various reforms that Raul Castro has since put in place?
MR. FISK: My hesitation is because I'm hard pressed to give you a positive response on that. I mean, at this point, there's rhetoric. At this point, there are some possibilities. But again, until we can actually see that Cubans can really benefit from this, I think, again, we are going to be reluctant to want to rush to embrace. Again, I think the President today, rightly, is going to lay down kind of, if you allow access to cell phones, then, okay, free speech should be part of that.
I'm sorry -- woman in the back there. Yes, ma'am.
Q Thank you, Mr. Fisk. I would like to know if you can elaborate a little bit more on the level of engagement of Latin American countries to support U.S. efforts in Cuba.
MR. FISK: Well, I'm hesitant to talk about what other countries are doing to support U.S. efforts. I will make a comment that I think that there is a consensus in the hemisphere on the need for democratic change in Cuba. There's no doubt that there's a vigorous debate internationally about U.S. policy. We're very well aware of that. But I also think that there is agreement on the strategic objective of the Cuban people being allowed to enjoy fundamental freedoms and fundamental rights on that.
So, to the extent that other countries are speaking -- whether they're in Latin America or elsewhere -- are speaking up on behalf of democratic change, on behalf of human rights in Cuba, then we applaud that and we encourage more countries to do that and to do it actually more publicly, more vocally, and more consistently.
So again this isn't a matter -- for instance, today is not about U.S. policy kind of for the global event. What we do at the White House has a U.S. policy element to it. But it is about, again, solidarity with the Cuban people. And so we are heartened that there will be a number of events today in Latin America and in Europe primarily that call attention to the situation on the island.
Let me go here.
Q Actually, you just touched on this. Where are these other events taking place, and how many of them are there? Can you just go into that a little bit more?
MR. FISK: I'll be happy to. And I will acknowledge that some of these numbers are soft in the sense that we'll know at the end of the day kind of what has happened. There is a website. I did not bring it with me, the link on that. I'll get it to Dana so that you all can see that it actually posts a map of where events are. It will be, again, events across the United States. There will be a number of events throughout the Western Hemisphere/Latin America. Again, we're looking at non-governmental organizations -- again, vigils, rallies, religious services. A number of events in Europe; the last count I have is about events in about 30 countries of one type or another.
U.S. embassies, by the way, will also be doing events, but the 30 countries does not account -- does not include U.S. embassy events. That's a far larger -- a larger number. So, I mean that hopefully gives you a little bit of a snapshot. And again we'll get you the website so you can actually get on and see.*
Q So why the 21st for this new global solidarity day? Just to kind of build a whole week? Why not the 19th or the 20th?
MR. FISK: Good question. Because the 19th is already a day that's commemorated, because the 20th is another day that's commemorated. In terms of the individuals putting this together and the NGOs putting this together, they just thought they would pick a different day to kind of fit in that period from May 19th to May 25th. There's no magic to it.
Q Do you want a week of pressure, or do you want --
MR. FISK: Pardon?
Q But you want it to be generally a Cuba week?
MR. FISK: Yes. I mean, the idea here is that you have a -- because Cubans on the island see this as a period of activity, kind of book-ended by Jose Marti's death, the date of his death, and the death of Boitel, it kind of fit in there, and it made -- it just made sense to the individuals involved and the organizations involved in this effort.
If there's someone who hasn't -- not to be dismissive -- but someone who hasn't yet asked a question.
Q I just wondered if you could give us maybe a little more background on how this policy came about. How long have you been thinking about it? Has it been in the works since Raul Castro took over? Just any details that you might share with us on how it came about, and the President's involvement in it.
MR. FISK: I think it's fair to say that actually since the announcement that Fidel Castro went in the hospital, we've had a ongoing policy process to determine, first of all, what is going on on the island, what it means, and then how we can -- how we should, and if we should, modify our policy.
There's no doubt that this was given some momentum by the events of February, when we had Raul -- I'm sorry, Fidel Castro kind of pass many of his titles on to Raul -- I think there's still a question about who the power in Cuba is at this time. And since then, we have, at the President's direction, continued to put a number of initiatives -- discussed a number of initiatives and go through the whole interagency process and kind of consider what our options are and how we should proceed, being, again, consistent with the President's policy that what we are seeking to do is empower the Cuban people, get directly to them, not further enrich the regime, and again, kind of what realistically and effectively the U.S. can do with the Cuban people.
Q Why is that effective, giving them cell phones?
MR. FISK: Because it enhances their ability to communicate.
Q With the outside world?
MR. FISK: And with themselves. One of the things that the regime has done -- and remember, this is a repressive state. I mean, this is a police state. This is a state in which you go to jail for your beliefs. Again, we've seen repression continue since Raul took formal power. That has not changed the harassment of dissidents. Detentions may not be now as long-term, but they're on a consistent basis. So, for civil society, there is still very much the firm hand of the Cuban state in their lives.
So the regime has done a very good job of isolating Cubans and Cuban civil society on the island so that you may have activities in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end that individuals in other parts of the island are not aware of. If you give them more means of communication, we think that is something that helps them and empowers them.
Q Dan, if sending cell phones is a good idea, why wouldn't it be a good idea just to remove the embargo?
MR. FISK: The same argument that's there is that the regime has set up as many of these structures as possible to where you do business with the regime. The idea with the cell phones is they're going directly from family members to other family on the island. This is not a case in which you're enriching the regime. Lift the embargo, and let's --
Q To get service there --
MR. FISK: Pardon?
Q To get service there you have to pay.
MR. FISK: Well, the question -- I mean, right now you can pay for service in south Florida. They may end up having to get service on the island. We have factored that in, but we think that there's -- the cost/benefit on this works to the benefit or works in favor of Cuban civil society and empowering the Cuban people, as opposed to lifting the embargo, which just says, okay, now you go in and be in business with the regime. We see this as a different -- very much a different issue.
Q There are no other areas where the cost/benefit might make it worth it, without going all the way to --
MR. FISK: I'm not dismissing that. For the time, we're focused on cell phones. I'm not going to get into speculation on other areas, but I'm not saying that there are not other areas.
Q Are there other policy changes coming on this?
MR. FISK: At this point we're focused on May 21st -- today.
Q Are computers allowed to be shipped over?
MR. FISK: Pardon?
Q Are computers allowed to be shipped over?
MR. FISK: Currently under existing rules, nongovernmental organizations now are -- can get a license to provide computers to civil society activists and dissidents on the island.
Q Could you just mechanically -- just one quick point: So was this an executive order to adjust the embargo? I mean, how do you mechanically adjust the policy?
MR. FISK: Well, in this case the State Department and the Department of Commerce will work together to change the regulatory structure. It's a federal register; it's not an executive order. Most of the embargo is actually contained in federal regulations.
Q And you don't rule out further changes to the embargo, though? Further loosening of aspects of the embargo?
MR. FISK: At this point we're going to continue to look for those areas where we think we can help the Cuban people -- again, not prejudging what those may be. But right now we are focused on the events today, the plight of the Cuban people, and then specifically, how we can enhance their ability to communicate amongst themselves and with the outside world.
Q Sorry to ask one more. How long will it take to take effect? If it's a federal register and not an executive order, how long will it be before people can actually have cell phones?
MR. FISK: I don't have a complete answer on that. It has to go through a process. My understanding is it's going to -- the change is not effective today, but it will be relatively quick, from what I understand talking to the agencies that are involved.
Q Weeks, months?
MR. FISK: We're looking at a matter of a couple of weeks.
Q Thank you.
MS. PERINO: Dan -- I'm sorry -- Dan, I think that -- it's not a loosening of the embargo. I think we need to make sure that that's clear.
MR. FISK: No, no, I mean, this is, again, this is a case of -- as we have allowed other material support to go to the Cuban people or to activists, this is -- we think this is consistent with that policy.
Q Yes, but it is a loosening of the embargo. I mean, you're letting in cell phones. The embargo would have prevented it, but now you're saying it's all right.
MS. PERINO: As I understand it, as he just said, it's a change in the already established policy that allows people to send gift parcels to their family; we're allowing now cell phones to be a part of that gift parcel. And we -- despite really annoying cell phone violations, we still think it's a good idea.
Q Another subject?
MS. PERINO: Yes.
Q Any reaction to the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Turkey? Is the U.S. participating? Is there any concern within the administration about it?
MS. PERINO: No, the United States in not participating. This decision was undertaken by Israel. We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it. We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria -- Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people. And so we will see how this progresses.
Q What about the farm bill?
Q -- attempt to engage with the sponsors of terror?
MS. PERINO: Well, one -- I think if you look at their announcements, one of the things that they said is that they will have to -- that the condition is that they have to loosen their support for Hezbollah and Hamas and to end their terror. I mean, that was not unlike other things we've said before.
Q -- model for us, though?
MS. PERINO: I would not put it that way. I think that we'll see how this goes. We appreciate that Turkey is trying to play a constructive role in the discussions, but we do believe that Syrian support needs to end for terrorism, and that includes their intervention in Lebanon.
Q Farm bill? Timetable?
MS. PERINO: Farm bill, on the timetable for the President -- we do expect the President will veto it at some point today, so let the phone calls to my office begin: "Has he done it yet? Has he done it yet?"
This bill is bloated. It is bad for American taxpayers. And when grocery bills are on the rise, Congress is asking families to pay more in subsidies to wealthy farmers, at a time of record farm profits. We believe that the fact that they wanted to spend more than $20 billion over the current baseline is way too much to ask from taxpayers right now. We think that they hid new spending with timing shifts. There's a report today that one of the provisions in the bill actually would provide even more subsidies to farmers.
And so the President has been clear all along on this bill. We worked hard to try to get to a place where we could sign a farm bill. We were very clear with what our provisions would be, and at the end of the day Congress decided to go in another direction.
Q Do you expect an override?
MS. PERINO: We would like -- if you look at the vote count, an override is probably likely, just looking at the raw numbers of it. But I do think that members are going to have to think about how they will explain these votes back in their districts at a time when prices are on the rise. People are not going to want to see their taxes increased for farmers that we believe are already well taken care of in the marketplace. So -- there are also some other interesting pieces of the bill. For example, the increasing government intervention in the sugar markets is something that we strongly object to, amongst other things that you've seen in our statements of administration policy.
So as soon as the President vetoes that bill we will let you know. And in the meantime we'll be continuing to work with members of Congress to explain why the President is going to veto this bill and why he thinks it's a bad deal. And then they'll have to decide when it goes down to a veto vote how they're going to counter their vote.
Anyone else on farm bill?
Q Can you go back to the Syria negotiations?
MS. PERINO: Sure.
Q Has the U.S. been aware of that?
MS. PERINO: I would say that we were not surprised by the Israeli announcement today.
Q Can you explain why it's not appeasement for the Israelis to talk to the Syrians? Isn't that -- isn't talking to radicals --
MS. PERINO: I think that you dismiss -- I think you need to go back and look at what the Israelis said and what I have just said, which is that we would hope that Syria would end its -- that these talks would result in Syria ending its sponsorship of terrorism. We don't know where this will go. We'll have to see how it progresses.
Q Thank you, Dana.
MS. PERINO: Can we make this the last one, because I got to go to the East Room.
Q With all the criticism that has come within the Republican Party since the special election defeat in Mississippi, the latest being the memo from Congressman Davis about the Republican Party needing to take a good look at itself, has -- is the President aware of this criticism, and does he have a comment?
MS. PERINO: Aware of it? Let me see if I can reach him in terms of a comment. I think that he is aware of it. He knows that it's really important for Republicans to be running on two main issues: one, being strong on national security and making sure that they get out there and commit to keeping Americans' taxes low. And we've had a -- we have to make sure that we have really good candidates, and make the case for why we should win in November. So I'll see if I can get you more.
Q A quick one on Myanmar, Dana. The regime there slammed the door on U.S. Navy vessels delivering aid today.
MS. PERINO: They did?
MS. PERINO: I had not heard that. I knew that we had had a significant numbers of flights that have gone in. So let me check with USAID, and we'll have a comment.
Q Any phone call to Senator Kennedy, or any plans to make a call to Senator Kennedy?
MS. PERINO: Well, you know, he spoke to Mrs. Kennedy the other day. The other day?
MS. PERINO: Monday? Yes, the other day. The other day. I don't have a call today. I don't -- I know that Senator Kennedy's Chief of Staff, immediately after the President was informed yesterday -- not coordinated it, but they called separately and on their own called the Chief of Staff's office to make sure that the Chief of Staff could tell the President to make sure that he was aware. And so the President, as he said, was visibly saddened by it. He's deeply saddened by the news. And we'll see if I can get you anything more regarding either a phone call or a on-camera statement for you.
Q Thank you, Dana.
END 10:07 A.M. EDT