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White House, State Department briefing on OAS

Press Releases: The OAS Ministerial in Honduras

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 18:38:02 -0500

The OAS Ministerial in Honduras

Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.

Assistant Secretary

Special Assistant To The President and Senior Director For Western Hemisphere Affairs at The National Security Council Dan Restrepo

Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

Briefing Via TeleconferenceWashington, DC June 3, 2009


MR. AKER: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today for a read-out of the results of the OAS Ministerial in Honduras, which has just concluded. We have with us today Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council Dan Restrepo. We’ll start out with a statement by Mr. Restrepo.

MR. RESTREPO: Thank you very much. And thanks, everybody, for getting on this call this afternoon. We just wanted to get you all up-to-date on what has happened here at the OAS General Assembly.

Today has been a historic day for the inter-American system. You’ve seen two things occur in a resolution passed by consensus by the organization, one that leaves without effect the 1962 suspension of the current government of Cuba from participation in the OAS, and second that establishes a path forward that has multiple steps to it, beginning with whether the Cuban Government asks to come back to the organization or not, a question that may be complicated for that government given what it has been saying about the organization in recent weeks and actually throughout the last 40 years, but a process that is clearly enunciated on the face of the resolution that it has to be in accord with the basic principles, purposes, and practices of the OAS, which itself is defined in the resolution to be based on the OAS Charter and other fundamental instruments that defend democracy, self-determination, non-interference, human rights, development, and security.

So what we’ve seen today is really a testament to the hard work of multilateral diplomacy. A couple of weeks ago, if you had stopped and asked all the countries in the Western Hemisphere what they wante d to do with the 1962 resolution, they would supported a three-line re solution doing – lifting the 1962 resolution and allowing Cuba to automatically return to the OAS. The United States and other countries from various parts in the hemisphere fought, defended, and prevailed in saying that this was not an automatic process, that yes, let’s leave an argument of the past in the past, let’s not become prisoners of the past, but let us ensure that we are defending the basic principles of democracy and human rights and non-intervention and non-interference as the path forward to Cuba’s return to the organization.

Simply put, for Cuba to return to the organization, the organization has to agree that Cuba is abiding by the same rules that everybody else is abiding by. That is a historic achievement. We think it is an important day that reflects a policy that listens to the concerns of the region with respect to lifting the ’62 suspension and defend the core principles of the Americas shared by the United Sta tes, all in defense of ensuring that they are shared by and enjoyed by all the people of the hemisphere, including the people of Cuba. So instead of being focused on an argument that is nearly 50 years old that has done little to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people, we can return to the focus to today, to the realities of today, and to the realities of the issues not just in Cuba but throughout the Americas.

MR. AKER: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, do you have any additional comments?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: No, I think we can go to questions.

OPERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone telephone and please clearly record your name when prompted. One moment for the first question, please.

The first question does come from Patricia Mello (ph) with Estado. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, Dan. Hi,Tom. My question is I would like to underst and what exactly changed in terms of the U.S. agreeing on a consensus decision to revoke the suspension.

MR. RESTREPO: I’m not exactly sure I understand the (inaudible). The United States agreed to do what we said all along, that we would stand by the basic principles of the organization, defend those principles, and seek a consensus – seek to build a consensus with partners from throughout the hemisphere around that premise; that the lifting of the ’62 suspension would not – did not mark the automatic return of Cuba to the organization. That is a position we staked out. We’ve been consistent about, and that we rallied support with the help of countries from throughout the region and throughout the hemisphere.

And I think it’s important to note that last night there was a document on the table when conversations ended, seemingly in an impasse, when the country – the ALBA countries would not accept the text, that there was generalized consensus around. This morning, witho ut changing a word, they came around to join the consensus that had been formed under the leadership of the United States and other country – other important countries throughout the hemisphere.

QUESTION: So I’m sorry, just to follow up. The consensus demands that Cuba adopts democratic causes and there are some demands?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I mean, as it stands right now, the resolution makes very clear that the process by which Cuba must follow in order to reenter the OAS, requires first that Cuba request permission. Secondly, that it enter into a dialogue with the relevant organs of the OAS, and that that dialogue and the decision rendered by the OAS must be in accord with the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS. And the resolution makes very clear that the fundamental instruments and documents in the OAS, like the Inter-American Democratic Charter, will be the guiding documents as the OAS engages with Cuba.

So as Dan noted, what’s important here is we&r squo;ve lifted an historical impediment while facing up to the challenge of today, which is how do you – how does the OAS, an organization committed to democracy, relate to a country that is not democratic? And how does the OAS and the inter-American system, which is characterized by open societies and market-based economies, relate to a country that has a closed society and a closed economy? And in this regard, as Dan noted, the OAS has remained true to its core principles and purposes. And this was the result of leadership by the United States and by our partner countries, but especially by Secretary Clinton.

And I’d like to highlight the fact that the resolution that was approved today was based on a resolution presented by Secretary Clinton yesterday, following extensive conversation and negotiation with a broad range of partners. And so it is the product of a collaborative dialogue with key partners around the hemisphere. And it was such a powerf ul document and such a powerful coalition of countries that those countries that felt uncomfortable with aspects of it, ultimately were not able to change it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Jill Dougherty, CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Elise – actually, it’s Elise Labott. We’re trading out.

I think what is a little unclear is when some senior State Department official spoke to us last week, we were under the impression that you didn’t want the resolution – you wanted the resolution that kind of formulated a dialogue with Cuba about its future in the organization, but you did not want to rescind. You weren’t ready to rescind this kind of edict. And what some of the other member countries were saying was, even if you do kind of lift this, you know, official ban, the long-time ban that was from the Soviet era, it wouldn’ t mean that Cuba would get back into the organization anyway, because it still had to meet the fundamental principles of a democratic charter. So it does seem to be that you’ve moved on this issue. And I’m just wondering what it was that made the United States comfortable signing onto this resolution, because as of last week you didn’t seem so comfortable with the idea.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Elise, this is Tom. And since I think I was that senior official, I think I could respond to this question.

QUESTION: Well, I didn’t know if we’re on the record here so I just didn’t want to –

MR. AKER: Yes, we are on the record.

QUESTION: Yeah, so I didn’t want to hang you out to dry, Tom. (Laughter) But now you’ve hung yourself.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: But listen, first of all, I think – I think I would kind of rephrase, you know, how you described what we talked about the other day. Becaus e I think if you went back and looked at the transcript, I think what’s clear is that, number one, we want a forward approach on Cuba, not a backwards approach on Cuba. And – because ultimately, you know, what the region made clear to us in our talks that had been ongoing for quite some time is that they wanted to find a way to deal with Cuba that wasn’t based on Cold War instruments or decisions that the OAS had taken, but instead was is based on the current instruments related to democracy, to human rights, to self-determination, non-intervention, security, and development.

And what the President made clear in Trinidad and Tobago is that we want a new relationship that is a forward-looking relationship, and one that is based on the future of the Cuban people, the well-being of the Cuban people. So in this regard, I think we accomplished our core goal, which, again, was not to defend a resolution that is 47 years old, but instead to recognize that as we try to construct a new relationship with Cuba, we have to help the rest of the region construct a new relationship.

QUESTION: So – but it sounds over the last couple of days that you have softened your approach to this. I mean, would it be fair to say that after consultations with your hemispheric colleagues that you – that, you know, it was a compromise that, you know, as long as the organization kind of made clear that it was going to stick to the fundamental principles of the charter, that you were comfortable signing on to this resolution?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, again, you know, multilateral diplomacy is like several-dimensional chess. It requires acting on several different levels, but it requires a lot of cooperation, a lot of dialogue, but it also requires precision as we work through resolutions and language. And obviously, we wanted to make very clear that we were listening to the region, and that the relationship the President had promised in Trinidad and Tob ago, one of collaboration and dialogue, was going to be made real here. And so we were prepared to listen to the concerns expressed and to try to accommodate them in a reasonable way. But ultimately, for us, the bottom line has always been democracy and individual human rights.

And it’s important to understand also that aside from the Cuba issue, what we were able to accomplish here is, number one, get the ALBA countries to commit to broad instruments that they (inaudible) – like the Inter-American Democratic Charter. But also we were able to strengthen the OAS as an institution, because one of the broad – the bigger fears going into this is that a breakdown in talks here was going to provoke divisions in the different sub-regions of the hemisphere, but also within the OAS. And what we have done, I believe, is strengthen the OAS as an institution, and that is an important goal.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPE RATOR: The next question comes from Carol Giacomo with The New York Times. Your line is open.

QUESTION: My question has to do with the fact that I still don’t see how you go forward here. If Cuba were to say tomorrow, “We want to be members of the OAS, “there are a lot of countries in the OAS who would immediately vote to include them. How – I mean, I understand that you – you know, you reference the charter and the other standards of the OAS that reflect democracy and human rights. But I mean, what if Cuba were to hold elections tomorrow and then come back to you and say, “Well, we held elections,” I mean, would that be enough of a marker to get them in? I mean, it’s not spelled out. That’s my question.

MR. RESTREPO: I think when you review the text of the resolution, you’ll see that a process is laid out. The process begins with what is a difficult decision for a Cuban Government that has spent 40 years railing against an institutio n because of its defense of democracy and individual human rights. They would have to swallow that to ask to get into the organization. And then a process consistent with the manner in which this organization functions, its practices, but more importantly, its principles and purposes, as defined in this resolution itself, would be the guide to its participation in the organization. I mean, those are clearly enumerated. There is reference to the fundamental instruments of the organization, and to democracy, security, human rights, self-determination, non-intervention, and development.

So there is a clear process here. There are practices that guide how the organization operates. One of those very important practices is the practice of consensus, and we have seen in this process how consensus can work. It can address the concerns of members while staying true to the basic principles that we have defended throughout this process. That’s what we saw and that culminated here today. The work on how we go forward and how we focus on policies and approaches that support the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future is where our focus is, rather than having a stale 47-year-old debate.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Arshad Mohammad with Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you to respond to a statement from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who says, quote, “Rather than upholding democratic principles and fundamental freedoms, OAS member-states, led by the OAS Secretary General, could not move quickly enough to appease their tyrannical idols in Cuba. Today’s decision by the OAS is an affront to the Cuban people and all who struggle for freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights,” close quote.

MR. RESTREPO: I think the important thing to underscore of what happened today is that in a – as a result of effective diplomac y, the United States and other partner countries through the region converted a situation where the OAS may have been on the verge of a four-line resolution that simply lifted the 1962 suspension and extended open arms to a government that does not abide by the basic principles that are at the core of our values and the values of the system. Instead of that result, we have a result that lays out a process that specifically refers to the fundamental instruments of this organization of democracy, human rights, self-determination, and other enumerated rights that are precisely the rights that this Administration is working to advance and defend in Cuba and throughout the Americas. This is a day – a positive day in the process forward on the issue of supporting the desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their destiny, like the people in our country and throughout the hemisphere get to do on a regular basis.

OPERATOR: The next question comes fro m James Rosen with Fox News. Your line is open.

QUESTIO N: Gentlemen, thank you for conducting this conference call on, apparently, short notice. You’ve both made clear repeatedly just in the course of this conference call that at various points along the way – three weeks ago and even yesterday – we were, as Dan just said, on the verge of a four-line resolution that would have agreed to readmit the Cubans with no conditions placed. And at the same time – and that that would have been, as you would agree, in contravention of OAS’s own charter, practices, principles, purposes. And yet they were ready to do it at various points. We were on the verge.

And now you’re telling us that they’ve passed a resolution which, if and when the Cubans do seek readmission, requires some demonstration from the Cubans to the satisfaction of these very same people who were prepared to act this way, that they’re suddenly on the right path.

So my question is: What gives you co nfidence that if and when that day comes and the Cubans seek re-admission, that the same feckless characters who were on the verge of a four-line resolution but for our strenuous intervention won’t prove similarly feckless in regard to their own practices, purposes, charter, and so forth?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Excellent question, a several-part answer.

First, most of the countries around the table wanted (inaudible) as part of the consensus. They recognized at the end of the day this decision about Cuba had to be something that strengthened the OAS and not weakened it. And when we made very clear that our commitment to the core principles of the OAS was not up for negotiation, then these countries realized they had to find a way to work with us in a fashion that protected those principles. And that – that was an important moment, number one.

Number two, as we got deeper into this discussion, many of the countries we worked with realized that the short form of the resolution raised more questions than it answered, and that ultimately the members of the negotiating teams of the different countries began to explore just what a short resolution would mean. And ultimately, they were uncomfortable with it and they recognized that the resolution really needed two parts, one part being lifting the suspension. The second part being – describing the process by which Cuba would seek readmission if it wanted to, and what purpose, practices, and principles would guide it.

So again, this is all about diplomacy. It’s all about working with countries to help them understand their own interests and values, how those interests and values are tied into a larger multilateral network. And in this regard, I think the active participation of Secretary Clinton, the active participation of many high-ranking officials in our government, was vital in getting this message through.

MR. RESTREPO: I think one other thing that’s impor tant to note is that the United States remains committed to defending these principles. And I think what we have done through this process is it strengthened our hand in that defense. We’ve rallied other countries behind us, put them on record as standing up for these principles and this process as the guide forward. And so by engaging in a constructive dialogue and listening to their concerns, we made folks more open to our concerns. And that I think, at the core, is how this is a clear sign of the effective use of all the power of the United States, and here the diplomatic ability of the United States, to change the course of events that would not have served our national interests and our core values into one that strengthened our national interests and our core values, and the partnership that we have with important countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.

QUESTION: And just to follow up. In terms of crafting policy both unilaterally and mul tilaterally through this organization toward Cuba that is forward-look ing and not backward-looking, what evidence or signs can you point to suggest that Cuba is likewise committed to that kind of forward progress under Raul Castro as far as we can see?

MR. RESTREPRO: That first thing, there’s one premise in your question that I’m going to have to challenge. It’s very important to separate the U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationship from the multilateral environment in which we found ourselves and which we find ourselves at the Organization of American States. The United States and President Obama in his Administration has been very clear about how he believes it is best to advance our national interests and support the Cuban people and the desire to determine their own future and to improve our relations with the Cuban people and to open a new era in bilateral relations. That remains the guidepost in the bilateral context. So I just wanted to make sure that that was very clear. And I think Tom had some on the rest of the question.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah. I mean, ultimately, as Dan noted, you know, we are pursuing effectively a two-track approach on Cuba. One is to enhance people-to-people contact and ensure that we are looking ways for improve the well-being of the Cuban people and increase their capacity to have a meaningful voice in determining their national destiny.

The second track is a government-to-government track it – that then is determined to see whether or not we can have a dialogue with Cuba across areas of mutual benefit and interests. We have made a proposal to Cuba on migration talks and direct mail talks. The Cuban Government has agreed to both of those. It has also suggested that we need a broader and more comprehensive dialogue. These are good signs. But ultimately, we are going to determine in the course of our engagement both in our effort to help the Cuban people and in our effort to establish some level of dialog ue with the Cuban Government whether or not they are as future-oriente d as we are.

MR. RESTREPO: And one last thought, as the President said at the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, he is open to a new relationship, a new era in relations between the United States and Cuba. He’s not interested in talk for the sake of talk and that this is about actions. This is a process that will take time. It will be hard. And I think to underscore that we’re not interested in talk just for the sake of talk, this week is an example of where talk was a very effective tool to advance our interests and get – and reach an outcome that defends the core principles that we have stood by and that we stand by and that we’ll continue to stand by, by getting an outcome that makes very clear that the return of Cuba to the OAS is not an automatic event at this point, but one, a process that leads – that is founded and grounded in the core principles like democracy and human rights. So I think that’s a clear example of w here talk is a very effective mechanism of advancing our national interests.

OPERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen.

MR. AKER: Thank you. We have -- we’re about out of time. We have, at most, time for one final question.

OPERATOR: And the last question does come from Jesus (inaudible) with (inaudible) magazine. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Dan, I have a quick question for you on – if I understood – he wants to respond. There’s already reaction in Capitol Hill. Some members of the Republican Party are proposing legislation to suspend the money that the U.S. give to the – the U.S. give to the Organization of America States. What the Obama Administration is going to do in order to stop this kind of action by the Republican Party, who obviously are not happy with this decision?

MR. RESTREPO: This decision is a couple of hours old. I think upon time and reflection, people will recognize that we did exactly what we stated we would do here, which was stand up for the core values of democracy and human rights, and to make Cuba’s eventual return to the organization (inaudible) to make process consistent with the practices, principles, and purpose of the OAS which are in the resolution itself defined to be embodied in the OAS charter and other fundamental instruments (inaudible). We all know that those other fundamental instruments in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

And so I believe upon further (inaudible) we will continue to work closely with Congress. We will consult closely with them and discuss this issue moving forward, because we all share the common goal, and that common goal is to see a day when the Cuban people get to decide their own future (inaudible) consistent with that enjoyed by people across the hemisphere (inaudible), which is what, ultimately, we want to see. And we believe we are taking steps in that direction. Rather than being rooted in an argument of the past, we are focused on the presence and the future. This is an important step in that direction and we look forward to working with Congress on this and many other issues of hemispheric concern.

MR. AKER: Thank you.

MR. RESTREPO: Thank you all very much for participating. And we will talk again soon, I imagine. Thanks.

MR. AKER: Thank you, everyone. And just a reminder – this is an on the record briefing. And in addition, I would like to point out that the Department of State will be issuing a statement on the results of the ministerial soon, so stayed tune. Good-bye, everyone.

PRN: 2009/540