The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 23, 2007

Press Briefing Via Conference Call by a Senior Administration Official on the President's Speech on Cuba

6:24 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you all very much. Thank you for doing this at this hour.

The President will give remarks on Cuba tomorrow. He will start out the speech by noting that one of the success stories of the last several years has been the overall advance of economic and political freedom across Latin America, and juxtaposed against that is the fact that there is still one country that traps its citizens in a failed system, and that country is Cuba.

And the President will then go through some of the promises that the regime made in its early moments, and then discuss and describe for the listeners what Cubans deal with on a day-to-day basis and what have been the results of this 48-year totalitarian reality. He will talk about the denial of basic rights -- the Cuban people's denial of basic rights, such as things that they cannot change jobs, they cannot change addresses without the express approval of the state, that they're subjected to neighborhood watch programs, that there are efforts to limit what they have access to in the way of information. He will then talk about the economic circumstance that they face, the deprivations, the challenges, the poor condition of the economy and the country that faces shortages, again because of policies by the regime.

He will note that the constant assault on the freedom of the press that has occurred, and give some examples of Cuban -- independent journalists today and how they try to survive. He will then -- he will also talk about the lack of respect for human rights and the regime's use of political offenses to deal with what it sees as its enemies, and the vague nature of the legal structure they operate under.

To give this picture of Cuba a human face, to really show people that this is not an academic or a theoretical exercise, it impacts people on a daily basis, he will have with him for these remarks six family members who represent four political prisoners. He will highlight the cases of four political prisoners who are currently imprisoned in Cuba. He will have family there. Some of these family members have arrived in the United States as recently as a month ago. So Cuba and the experience that they lived on the island is very, very real. He will recount their stories and introduce them to the audience. One of the individuals who will be there is Yamile Llanes, who the President introduced at the Hispanic Heritage event about two or so weeks ago. He will note that these are examples of the terror and trauma that is Cuba today, that the Cuban people confront this kind of brutal reality on a daily basis, and that the international community needs to take note that this is the reality of Cuba.

But he will also then note that calls for change are growing across the island; there are examples of peaceful demonstrations. One of the best known has been the Ladies in White. He will note that Cuban dissidents came together earlier this year to issue what they called the unity for freedom. That's a declaration for democratic change, basically that there are -- there's a restive element to the Cuban people, and that the -- that this will be the real Cuban revolution of them seeking their rights and joining the community of democracies.

And he will then say that now is the time to stand with the democratic movements and the people of Cuba; now is the time to put aside the differences that have existed amongst the international community, and we need to be focused on how we're prepared -- we, the international community are prepared for Cuba's transition. He will acknowledge and thank three countries specifically for their efforts to stand with Cuban pro-democracy forces -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. He will call on other countries to follow suit and to make tangible efforts to show public support for pro-democracy activists on the island -- such things as interacting with pro-democracy leaders, inviting them to embassy events, encouraging their country's NGOs to reach out directly to Cuba's independent civil society.

Turning back to the U.S. support for pro-democracy activists on the island, he will note that the U.S. Congress has approved his -- the President's request for additional funding to support Cuban democracy efforts. He will thank the members of Congress for this bipartisan support and urge them to get the law -- or the bill to him that they approved -- get the bill to him so that he can sign it. They will also urge members of Congress to show our support and solidarity for fundamental change in Cuba by maintaining our embargo until there is fundamental change in Cuba.

He will note that the regime does use the embargo as a scapegoat, but that Presidents of both countries have understood that Cuba's suffering is a result of the system imposed on the Cuban people. It is not a function or result of U.S. policy, that the only thing that trade will do is further enrich and strengthen the regime and their grip on the political and economic life of the island.

He will note then that the United States over the years has taken a series of steps to try to help the Cuban people overcome the suffering; that we have done things such as opened up as a place of refuge the United States; that we've tried to rally other countries; that we have authorized private citizens and NGOs to provide humanitarian aid to the island. And it's to the point that the United States is one of the, if not the largest, providers of humanitarian aid to the Cuban people in the world.

He will note that for us the objective has been -- the objective is to get aid directly into the hands of the Cuban people, and that the heart of our policy, the essence of our policy is to break the absolute control the regime holds over the material resources that Cubans need to live and prosper.

He will then announce some initiatives that the U.S. is prepared to take now to help the Cuban people directly if the Cuban regime will allow it to happen, if the regime will get out of the way. One initiative will be to -- one initiative he will announce is that the United States government is prepared to license NGOs and faith-based groups to provide computers and Internet access to Cuban students, and here we would like to be able to provide this to a Cuba in which there are no restrictions on Cubans on Internet access -- so that we would look at expanding this category of getting more computers with Internet access capability to the island, if Cuba's rulers end their restrictions on Internet access for all Cubans.

Excuse me, I apologize, a little tired here.

The next initiative is that we are prepared to invite Cuban young people into the scholarship program, Partnership for Latin American Youth. This is an initiative the President originally announced in March that was hemisphere-wide. He is going to extend a specific invitation to have Cuban youth participate in this, and again call upon the Cuba's rulers to allow Cuban youth to freely participate.

The President will then make the point that life will not improve for Cubans under the current system. It will not improve by exchanging one dictator for another, and it will not improve in any way by seeking accommodation with a new tyranny for the sake of stability. He will note that our policy is based on freedom for Cuba; our policy is not stability for Cuba, it is freedom, and that the way to get to a stable Cuba is through the Cuban people being given their freedom and fundamental rights.

To help bring about that reality, the President will ask Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez to pursue an effort to develop an international freedom fund for Cuba. They will be asked to go work with international partners and to look at how we can -- how we, the international community, can work together to be prepared to assist Cubans as they transition to democracy. But a key to this is going to be at a point at which there is a transitional government in place that respects fundamental freedoms -- freedom of speech, press, freedom to form political parties, the freedom to change their government through periodic multiparty elections. And also key to this is going to be the government that releases political prisoners, and which no longer imprisons or represses individuals who exercise their conscience freely, and frankly, where the shackles of dictatorship are removed.

The President then will note that the speech is being carried by a number of media outlets, some of which are reaching the island. And he will, for a moment, deliver a message to members of the Cuban regime, especially members of the Cuban military and the security apparatus. He will note that they are going to face a choice, and the choice is, which side are they on, the side of Cubans who are demanding freedom, or are they going to face the choice of having to use force against a dying -- force against their own -- their fellow citizens against a dying regime. And he expresses the hope that they will make the choice for freedom, and that -- and note that they will have a place in a democratic Cuba for those who support Cuba's democratic evolution.

He will then address a comment to the ordinary Cubans who are listening. He will say to them that they have the power to change, and/or to shape their destiny; that they are the ones who will bring about a future where Cuban leaders are chosen by them, where their children can grow up in peace and prosperity. He will remind them that over the years there have been many so-called experts that have said that change would never come to certain spots in the world, that there would always be totalitarian in Central and Eastern Europe, or there would always be authoritarianism in Spain or Chile, and that has not been the case; that there you had a case in which the people understood that they could shape their own destiny. Cubans can do the same. And at that point he will pretty much end the speech.

So I will end there, and then be happy to take some questions.

Q I'm not sure what you're saying here. Will the President be calling for Cubans to take arms against their government, to overthrow it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The President is not calling for armed rebellion. The President is reminding Cubans -- and I say this -- or putting out his view that they have, literally, as he puts it, the power to shape their destiny, and that they can bring about a future that is a different Cuba. And again if you look at the examples of Eastern Europe and Spain and Chile, you had examples there were -- those weren't armed. You had the people saying, enough is enough, and then through different mechanisms helping to bring about change.

So I think this is no different than his message has been in many -- in previous remarks on Cuba in terms of the faith and the ordinary Cuban to realize that they have a power within themselves to help move that country in a different direction that would be democratic, but he's also given that message to other peoples around the world who have faced authoritarian governments.

Q And is the President pegging this call for a -- the Cuban people to shape their destiny to the anticipated death of Fidel Castro?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not quite sure I understand your question, if I can --

Q Well, I'm saying -- is he looking ahead to this change, to the time in which Castro dies? Is that when he thinks is the right time for this change in Cuban government to take place?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that there's -- if I say -- earlier in the speech he makes a comment that now is the time to support the democratic movements that are growing across the island, now is the time to stand with the Cuban people. So now means now. But he also understands that -- and this is the other part of the speech -- that the international community needs to be prepared for that moment of change, and we're focused on the moment of change at which you've got a transitional government in place that is, as I think it says, in word and deed, is taking concrete steps to show that it respects fundamental freedoms.

Q And who is the audience for this speech?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The audience for this speech are Cubans on the island and the larger international community.

Q But who is he addressing at State?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He's addressing a audience that will be -- the invitees include members of the diplomatic corps, members of Congress. There will be the Washington -- representatives of the Washington policy community; there will be some of the -- a number of U.S. government officials there who either work on Cuba today or work on -- have worked on Cuba, say, with the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. This is not to a Miami audience.

Q Okay, thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The address is, as you all I think know, is at State Department in the Ben Franklin Room.

Q All right, thank you.

Q Hi, I appreciate you doing this today. I have a few things I've got here in my mind. I wonder first, why now, why the President is making this address now? Why at the State Department? And is there a vote coming up on the embargo at the United Nations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've lost the thread of when the U.N. vote is. That's one that's not coming up in my memory right now. So let me just, if I can, park that. I'm happy to try to find -- see if we can get an answer for you tonight. I guess that ties back to --

Q Why now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President has wanted to give a speech for some time on Cuba. We looked at a lot of different possibilities on the calendar, and it was just a matter that this was the timing that worked for a lot of reasons, given as much as anything, the calendar here in the United States. So it is not tied to a specific date, it is not tied to some U.N. action or congressional vote. We just thought that this timing worked. We thought that this was the right time for the message that the President wants to convey, again, looking forward, and addressing both audiences on the island and the international community, which also goes to the question of why the State Department. I mean, if you're going to do a speech, and you want to try to talk to a larger international community, then the State Department is as good a venue as any other place, and in fact, in some cases, representative of our interest in discussing Cuba with potential international partners.

Q And the international fund you said that you're going to -- can you explain that to me again? You're going to sort of launch an initiative to begin work on a fund?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's -- we want to announce an initiative to develop an international -- something we're calling the Freedom Fund for Cuba. And he will ask the Secretary of State and Secretary of Commerce to work with and enlist foreign governments and international organizations to contribute to an initiative that will be positioned to support Cubans and the rebuilding of their country when there is a government in place that is respecting fundamental freedoms.

Q All right, thank you.

Q Thank you for the chance. Just one point here; when you started to outline the initiatives the President will be discussing, it was based on this premise that the Cuban regime will get out of the way, I believe is how you put it. What gives you reason to think that that is going to happen, or gives you any optimism that the regime will allow these things to happen, whether it's the programs to help the kids, or invite them into the scholarship program, or the broader point about this transition to a democratic government? Where do you get the confidence for that kind of premise?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the confidence from that premise -- I guess there's a couple parts to your question. I would say that the larger confidence for our approach to Cuba is that -- is a belief in the Cuban people and in an understanding that they do have the ability to shape their future. Not to repeat myself, but this is something that we've seen in other places.

As for the specific initiatives, I don't think any of us are naive about the nature of the regime. I mean, it blocks Internet access now; it restricts various other opportunities for Cubans. But fundamentally, we think it's important to continue to remind Cubans that there are these opportunities out there. We want to try to get them access to the Internet, get them access to the world; and that the regime is what stands in their way, and one would, frankly, hope that the regime would step out of the way, so that the Cuban people can enjoy these benefits.

Q And just to follow, picking up on one of Mark's questions from earlier, is this all sort of framed around the working assumption that when Castro dies that will then trigger this transition and perhaps this movement by the Cuban people, or is it more complicated than that, that perhaps the current regime could simply continue on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that the analysis by a lot of people is, is that upon the death of Fidel Castro it will be a unique moment in modern Cuban history, because for nearly 50 years, that has not been a -- he's been a constant presence. I don't think anyone has premised that somehow he's here today, gone tomorrow, and, voila, the world or Cuba necessarily changes, but no one is discounting that. I mean, we don't know what happens the day after in this instance. I don't think Cubans know; whether the Cubans are in the top tier of the regime right now or, frankly, an ordinary Cuban in the eastern end of the island who's just trying to survive. It will be a unique moment.

Again, to go back to the speech, the President will note that now is the time to stand with the Cuban people. So it's not premised on, oh, yeah, we're all waiting and maybe when Fidel -- or when Fidel goes, that's the time to stand with the Cuban people. That's not the case. But there will be a different reality, not to sound like a -- I'm giving a cliche, but there's going to be a different and potentially dramatically different reality at that moment in Cuban history.

Q Okay, thank you.

Q Hi, I just have a question about the call for Congress to keep the economic sanctions in place, and I'm wondering if this is partly fueled by worries that the President has that they may weaken the sanctions, especially in 2009 when there's a new President and potentially a different climate in Congress?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is driven by a reiteration that if you trade or engage in activity and economic activity in Cuba today, your partner is the regime; and to remind the listeners that, one, U.S. policy is premised on getting assistance and support directly to the people, not bolstering this repressive apparatus that is the Castro regime. And it is just a reminder that part of our support and solidarity with the Cuban people is this continuing effort to deny resources to the dictatorship.

And I would say as far as the changes in Congress, we have seen a change this past year -- amendments being voted down; the President's request for $45 million in Cuban democracy assistance being approved on a bipartisan basis by both chambers. So I'm not going to speculate what kind of Congress is going to come out the elections of November in 2008 and what may -- a new President may confront in 2009. A new President may confront a Congress, frankly, that is solid in support of a strong U.S. position in Cuba, including maintaining the embargo. Clearly that's what this President would like to see. But right now he's just talking about, this is an important element of what we need to do -- we, the United States, need to do -- is maintain the embargo on the dictatorship as a way of standing with the Cuban people.

Q And one follow-up to that. Some analysts view Ra l Castro as somebody who will allow at least gradual change in the way Cuba is governed, and I'm just wondering, do you have any hope at all that he would be any better than his brother if he takes over permanently?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's nothing in Ra l's past that suggests anything good coming to Cuba, but separate -- I'll park that. But the key for this President is fundamental democratic change. If the regime were serious about that they could do that -- they could take a number of steps today that would be dramatic in showing that there's going to be a new Cuba. And so I'm not going to get into speculation any more than what I've already put out there, but the fact of the matter is, is that within the hemisphere we know what democracy is; it's been a hard-fought battle over 30 years to move a number of countries -- and when I say "move," it's been a number -- the citizens of those countries to move their governmental structure to one that respects their rights and gives them an opportunity to change their leadership through peaceful processes. And for the hemisphere that's been enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, that should be the standard that we apply to Cuba.

MR. JOHNDROE: We've got time for one more. It's getting late.

Q Two quick ones. You've mentioned that trade and investment in Cuba bolsters this oppressive apparatus, it serves to enrich Cuban leaders. Are you asking -- is the President going to be asking countries to reconsider their trade and investment in Cuba, and join the embargo in any capacity?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we are asking countries to do is to stand with the Cuban people, to do so now; that there are some things they can do that are very practical in terms of -- practical steps they can take through their presence on the island. They can define that in any number of ways. We also are going to ask them to work with us, with this Freedom Fund for Cuba. The idea is to work with us in a sense of kind of how are we prepared to help the Cuban people transition to democracy.

So a lot of this is going to be -- a lot of this is simply going to be that countries can decide how they define this. There's already -- the European Union has a common position, for example. Some Latin governments have at least spoken out about the situation of human rights in Cuba. So in no way is the President trying to say, here, you have to do this, you have to do that. In a way it's an appeal to their conscience, in some ways. That's one reason we're going through and saying, this is the reality -- this is the brutal reality of today's Cuba. This isn't something that just happened in the early '60s, in the early days of the revolution, this is what continues to this day. And it is a function and a result of the regime that's in place there. That's the key.

Q Okay. Then on the international fund, who would control this? When would it start spending money? Do you have a dollar goal for the amount you hope to gather?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At this point, those are things that we would want, in terms of its operation -- again, that's something we want to discuss. This isn't the idea that the President says, oh, here, let me wave my hand and here's a structure, and it's going to have a board of directors and it's going to have this and that. It is a case in which we want to get the international community proactively thinking about how we can help the Cuban people. We all know that Cuba is going to face very significant requirements to rebuild itself, just across the board, whether it's infrastructure types, whether it's housing, whether it's electrical grids. There's a whole set of dynamics that Cuba -- a whole set of challenges that Cuba is going to face. The United States clearly will want to help the Cubans as they define what it is they need.

But we think that the international community should be thinking that way, as well. And in terms of, okay, the Cubans want assistance, what is it that we would be prepared to move forward on, how do we do this in a way where we are not tripping over each other, potentially -- and the mechanism or the threshold at which we think that this kind of assistance needs to move forward again is when there is a transition government in place that has shown by word and deed that it is following through on fundamental freedoms.

Q Okay, and one final one. Is the President planning to lift the restrictions on Cuban Americans going to Cuba?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. What I gave you is -- when I went through the speech, that's what was --

Q The complete list.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- what was in there. Yes. I wasn't -- at Gordon's urging here, I wasn't holding something back. So you all can thank Gordon for that.

MR. JOHNDROE: All right, well, that's a good note to end it one. Senior administration official, thank you for your time. Members of the press, thank you all for your time and a late phone call. And that will do it. Thanks.

END 6:55 P.M. EDT

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