Press Briefing by Peter Tarnoff, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
The Briefing Room
1:42 P.M. EST
MS. MYERS: Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff will answer any questions you may have about Cuba. And I think I will suspend any further briefing as the Senate is making progress on the crime bill, so -- or about to vote on the Crime bill. And we may come back to it later.
Q: Are you or he coming back?
MS. MYERS: Well, we're hopeful. We hope that they'll go an actually vote on this sometime very soon. It looks like they're making progress toward that. But in the meantime --
Q: You think he'll win? I mean, will --
MS. MYERS: Well, we keep hoping we'll win. We'll have to wait and see how the vote comes out, so --
Q: one way or the other will the President come out?
MS. MYERS: We'll have to see. We haven't made any plans. We're just waiting to see what happens on the floor of the Senate. Now, they're sort of talking through it, and we're hopeful that they'll vote on the point of order and then vote on the conference report should we win.
Q: been talking to the leaders at all?
MS. MYERS: Not today. Not today.
Okay, without any further ado, Under Secretary Tarnoff.
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Thank you. Why don't I begin with some general statements about the current status of the migration issue and a few words about our policy and then open it up to questions.
On the current migration status, the average flow is still high. We're all seeing the same numbers, but it has remained high. But I have to say that as some of you have heard from Jack Sheehan in the Pentagon in the last hour or so, we're coping with it extraordinary well. There are more than 70 U.S. vessels, naval and Coast Guard, out there. And I think all of us in the administration -- I hope the American people are proud of the way the United States has responded to this humanitarian situation involving these people who are, of course, at great risk leaving Cuba and the kinds of conditions you're aware of.
We are in the process of increasing our broadcasts, both quantitatively and qualitatively to Cuba. The message is beginning to get through to even those parts of the islands which did not receive the signal heretofore. We are readying safe havens. And we expect announcements in the next day or two from some of the countries ready to receive Cubans. And shortly after that, there will be Cubans in places other than Guantanamo.
We also are considering ways and hope to be able to have something shortly to increase legal immigration as the President announced we would do over the weekend.
Now, as far as policy is concerned, what we are doing again is consistent with the desire of U.S. administrations over the past 30, 35 years to promote peaceful and democratic change in Cuba. I want to come back once again to the Cuba Democracy Act of two years ago, which provides the basis for this policy and which received overwhelming support in the Congress and the country.
This act does two things. It tightens the embargo in some respects, but it also provides the opportunity for certain kinds of increases in communications between the peoples of Cuba and of the United States.
Consistent with the Cuba Democracy Act, we will be announcing tomorrow the regulations implementing the President's decisions that were announced last Saturday, namely to restrict somewhat the remittances and gifts but with humanitarian exceptions with licenses that will have to be provided in some cases, and also his announcement there would be certain limitations on travel, again with humanitarian and certain other exceptions that will be described tomorrow morning at the Treasury Department.
Finally the Cuba Democracy Act envisions a day when there can be normal relations between the United States and a democratic Cuba. And I can tell you that we look forward to that time as well.
Why don't I take your questions.
Q: You're still resisting, however, any movement toward talks with Cuba. Didn't you at one point help out Senator Muskie at the time when he was Secretary of State and actually try this before?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: No. I did travel to Cuba in the late 1970s, but for a very different purpose. There were political prisoners, including several Americans in detention in Cuba. We had had an indication from the Cuban government that if someone went down from the United States to talk about the issue of political prisoners, including Americans, might be possible to obtain their release. And I did so -- and they were eventually released. So it was in that very narrow connection that I made those trips.
Q: But you were able to make progress. And isn't -- a lot of people now are saying that this is a time -- Senator Dodd, some other people who have followed Cubans -- are saying, put politics aside, maybe this is the time if you can negotiate with China and North Korea, why can't you talk to Fidel Castro?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I think, again,the circumstances of my going down to Cuba were very different because I was concerned primarily with the release of Americans who were detained illegally by the Castro regime. Now I think our position is very clear. The dialogue that has to take place is one between Castro and the Cuban people. The United States is not part of the problem. This is not a situation which has been brought on by American actions. We are often criticized by the Castro officials for being responsible because of the blockade. But let me point out that while there is a blockade in place with respect to trade in the United States, Cuba has the opportunity to trade freely with virtually every other country in the world, and this has not done much good.
Q: Well, why aren't you talking to them? You've talked to communists all over the world since 1933.
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: For the simple reason that we do not want to divert Castro's attention from the real issue. And the real issue is internal reform, a dialogue between himself and --
Q: Well, maybe a dialogue with help that.
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: -- a dialogue between himself and the Cuban people. And the Cuban people who are coming out on these rafts are telling us and telling him what they need. They need democratic reform. They need the liberation of political prisoners. They need economic --
Q: And aren't you recommending they stay there and put the pressure on him to get the dialogue there?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: We're not telling the Cuban people what to behave. Those who wish to come to the United States should have the recourse that is available to come out through the legal means. It's up to them to decide, but overwhelmingly they have a view and that's the important view of how change should occur in Cuba.
Q: Mr. Castro gave a speech last night, a long one; what is your reaction to it?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I listened to the speech, and I found it, once again, there was an attempt by the Cuban leader to lay the responsibility for the crisis in Cuba at the foot of the United States. We simply reject that premise. And that is the reason that we do not believe it is useful to have a dialogue with Castro. His responsibility is to engage with his people and to provide reform and change in Cuba itself.
Q: Mr. Secretary, why should the American people, whom you suggest should perhaps feel proud about all this, not view a policy which on the one hand seeks to squeeze Cuba and Cubans economically, and on the other hand tells them, whatever you, do don't come here? Why is that not utterly contradictory?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: That's not our policy. Our policy is to point out to the government of Cuba that they will not be allowed to benefit from some of the privileges which they have enjoyed over several years -- namely,the financial remittances, which did, at least indirectly, benefit the government of Cuba.
What we're saying to the people of Cuba is that it is up to them to decide what they want to do. If they want to stay in Cuba and work for change, that is fine. If they wish to come to the United States, there is a legal way for them to do so, and they should avail themselves of that responsibility.
Q: How is it an incentive -- how is cutting off money that might reach them from the United States an incentive for them not to flee?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I think what we want to point out to the government of Cuba is that the benefit that they have been deriving -- not only the people, the government of Cuba has derived a direct benefit --
Q: Well, what about the people, sir? I'm asking you -- the question is in the context of the people.
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: The people of Cuba, I think, understand that change must occur. That is what they are doing when they come out, by coming out, because they do not have a way to express themselves by remaining in the country. And I think the people of Cuba overwhelmingly are in favor of change and understand what the United States is trying to do to promote it.
Q: What evidence do you have, if any, that any of the efforts you're making to squeeze the Cubans will have any effect at all on Castro since none of it has seemed to have affected him over the past 30 years since he can trade with the rest of the world and since he has this safety valve to let dissidents out of the country?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I would think that when he looks at the -- not only the nature of the flow or the size of the flow, but the composition of the people who are leaving Cuba, and he sees many who are well-educated, most of whom as I said yesterday were actually born and brought up during his tenure as president, and he asks himself about the future of his country and how he can ensure his own legacy, he will begin to realize that now is the time to modify what he has done over the last 30, 35 years.
It has happened in former communist countries around the world that leaders brought up under the old system have realized that they have to change. I'm not making a prediction with respect to Castro, but I think the evidence for change is overwhelming.
Q: Don't you think that he -- that there's any evidence that he cares about his legacy?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I have no doubt that he cares about his legacy. Whether he cares about, whether he understands the best way to preserve that legacy is still an open question.
Q: Mr. Secretary, the United States seems to be totally isolated in this policy of no talk with Fidel Castro's -- at a high level with Fidel Castro's government. Most of the countries in the hemisphere, most of the U.S. allies say this is a ridiculous, absurd policy. How do you justify a policy that has virtually no support among the closest U.S. allies around the world?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: It's interesting that in talking to the hemispheric leaders who have met with Fidel Castro -- and you're right, several of them have sought him out over the past several years -- the responses that we receive, the reports that we receive from these leaders are quite clear. And that is there is very little inclination on his part to move significantly. And therefore, to move significantly. And therefore, we don't see any reason to try to divert the attention of the Cuban government or the Cuban people to the U.S.-Cuban relationship. His responsibility is to deal with his own people.
Q: Aren't you contradicting what you just told me?
Q: Is the American policy not to speed the downfall of Fidel Castro?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Our policy is to promote peaceful and democratic change. That's been the policy for the last 30 --
Q: Do we want to speed it up or do we want to --
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: We want that change -- we want that change to take place as we always have, and quickly as possible.
Q: Is it true that the Caribbean nations are going to take -- like the little island nations, St. Lucia and so forth -- are going to take some of the Cubans in?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I can't now tell you because these governments will have to make an announcement exactly who will be providing safe havens for Cubans.
Q: You said that the problem was not created by the U.S., that the problem has landed on the doorstep of the U.S. in the form of these refugees. Are you suggesting that the U.S. would not negotiate with Cuba on this refugee problem until there are elections in Cuba? Or what do you need to see before you would begin some kind of dialogue with the Cuban government?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: No, as a matter of fact, starting in 1984, a process for dialogue over immigration matters was established. And since that time, roughly twice a year there have been working level meetings between officials of the U.S. government and the Cuban government, both in this country and in Cuba, to deal with immigration matters and migration matters.
We said last week and announced that we had told the Cuban government in connection with notifying them of what the President had decided that we were prepared to hold another round of these talks, which have taken place roughly twice a year. We have not received a response from the Cuban government, but it is conceivable that there could be another round of these talks.
Q: But what would it take to ratchet those talks up one notch to the higher level? Those are --
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: We're not interested in having a higher-level political dialogue with Cuba for the reasons that I stated before.
Q: But, Mr. Secretary, wouldn't it be possible to do that unilaterally? Bernard Aronson, among others, has called for cutting back -- offering to ratchet back the economic sanctions against Cuba in return for concrete political steps by Castro. If you're not willing to sit down with Castro, would you be willing to state categorically and specifically what moves we would take in response to specific actions by Castro, such as freeing political prisoners and the like?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Here, again, the problem is not whether it's done publicly or privately. Our position is that we are not going to enter into a dialogue with Castro or the Cuban government over the pace and nature of change in Cuba. That is something that he is hearing every day increasingly from the Cuban people, and the people who are coming out are telling it more publicly than they did before. That's where the dialogue should take place.
Q: You spoke just now of restricting remittances somewhat. The President spoke of cutting them off with a couple of occasional exceptions.
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Well, there will not be -- again, I am going to let my colleagues at the Treasury Department explain in detail to all of you tomorrow what it means. They will be restricted, but they will not be cut off completely because there will be provisions for licenses and exceptions. But I'd rather defer to them for the details.
Q: Mr. Tarnoff, we know that there is opposition to Castro, however muted within Cuba. What is the administration's message to those people -- people in Cuba -- who do oppose him?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Well, our message to them is that we agree with their objectives insofar as they, too, favor peaceful and democratic change in Cuba. As a matter of fact, under the Cuban Democracy Act, it has been possible for a certain number of those people to come to this country, for us to meet with them --when I say us, I don't mean the U.S. government -- the American people, NGO organizations, human rights organizations -- and we certainly encourage what they're doing to the extent that they also favor democratic change in Cuba.
Q: Would you encourage it to the extent of calling for the overthrow of Fidel Castro?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: As I say, our policy has been consistent for 30 years -- and that is, we are in favor of democratic and peaceful change in Cuba. The nature of that change, the way the modalities are operated is for the Cuban people to be given a chance to decide.
Q: Where is Secretary Christopher this week? And to what extent is he in the loop on Cuban policy?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Oh, he's very much in the loop. We've been talking on a daily basis and he has indicated in the last couple of hours that he would, rather than spend an excessive amount of time on the telephone with all of us, it probably is more efficient for him to come back here. So he will be doing that later in the day. And he and the President have an understanding that it would be more efficient for him to be back in Washington.
Q: President-elect Zedillo has suggested that Mexico would lend its good offices to serve as a mediator between Cuba and the United States. Would the administration consider a third party serving as an intermediary in indirect talks?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: Again, let me say what our policy is. We are not looking for a way to establish a dialogue on political matters with the Cuban government. We have this device for the discussion of migration issues, this commission which has been in existence for the last 10 years. And we think that's the appropriate channel for discussion of this issue.
Q: Mr. Tarnoff, since Castro does not appear willing to bend anytime soon, isn't the only effective choice for the Cuban people is to launch a revolution or take to the boats?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: It's not up to the United States to dictate or suggest to the Cuban people what their choices are. What they are telling us is that they want change and we certainly support every effort that they are making for a peaceful and democratic change.
Q: Mr. Tarnoff, to what extent are political considerations, domestic political considerations, at issue in the decision not to begin a dialogue with the Castro regime?
UNDER SECRETARY TARNOFF: I don't think that they really are a factor in what we're talking about. Because if we were to enter a political dialogue with the Castro government to discuss some of the issues which have been talked about here, that would be a recognition, implicit or otherwise, on the part of the United States that we bear some responsibility for the situation in Cuba. We do not accept that.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:00 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Peter Tarnoff, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269803