Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer’s interview with John Kerry

Andres Oppenheimer, right, interviews Secretary of State John Kerry.
Andres Oppenheimer, right, interviews Secretary of State John Kerry. Miami

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer last week to discuss Latin America’s future, Venezuela, Cuba, the controversy over Carnival Corp. cruise trips to Cuba, Russia, ISIS and other issues. The interview, for The Miami Herald and CNN en Español, took place April 14. Here is the full transcript:

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time. Mr. Secretary, from your perspective, do you see a political change in Latin America? And if so, who is or who are the Latin America — the new Latin American leaders?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think there’s a transition taking place. Obviously, there are a lot of challenges. I think President Obama’s visit to Argentina recently — what President Macri is doing is very significant: re-entering the world, putting the country’s financial footing right, fixing the issue of the bonds, beginning to reach out, being willing to engage in peacekeeping and take on responsibility. President Santos is obviously making a valiant effort with respect to the negotiations and his initiative now with ELN in addition to the FARC. So there’s a great deal happening — President Obama’s initiative with Cuba, the transition with Cuba. I have heard from more leaders in Latin America that the United States’ initiative with Cuba has actually had a profound impact on everyone else in Latin America’s view of the United States and of the possibilities.

So I think we’re — the TPP — you have five Pacific countries, two of them in Latin America, Peru and Chile, both of which are part of this. So there’s a lot happening. But obviously, with Venezuela, with the turmoil in Brazil, there are challenges. And we all recognize that.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Venezuela. In Venezuela we have a power clash. As you know, the national assembly controlled by the opposition is passing laws that the supreme court controlled by the government is not enacting.

KERRY: Everything gets knocked down. Reminds me of Washington.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) So what do you say — how would you characterize that? Some critics — the opposition people — call it a coup d’etat. They say the government, the Venezuelan Government, is basically doing a coup d’etat against another governing power, which is congress. Would you characterize it that way, or is it an exaggeration?

KERRY: I don’t characterize — I don’t use labels like that. What I do think is that there’s a gridlock. There’s a clear gridlock in Venezuela, and President Maduro is simply ignoring what has been expressed in the will of the people in the most recent election. That’s very dangerous. And we regret enormously the fact that Maduro seems to always choose to focus on the United States and try to make us the culprit for his unwillingness to engage in the full breadth of democracy, to bring people to the table, to listen to them, to work with them, to come up with efforts which the people of Venezuela have clearly expressed is their desire.

So I think Venezuela is in a very difficult place, particularly with its economy. Its economy is in very rough shape. The price of oil has obviously had a profound impact. So once again, we call on the Government of Venezuela — on the executive side of the government — to listen to the people, to work with all of us. We are prepared to work with Venezuela. We want to have a normal relationship. We’re not engaged in any activities against the government. We simply want to try to see stability achieved and a full participation and engagement by the people with the government.

QUESTION: The president of the national assembly of Venezuela, Henry Ramos Allup, told me in a recent interview that he’s going to call on the — on Latin America’s diplomatic community and the U.S. to apply the OAS Democratic Charter on the Venezuelan Government. Is that a good idea? Is the U.S. going to support that? Do you see some movement on that?

KERRY: Well, pressing for full democracy and full respect for elections is always a good idea. How we would approach it I think has to be worked through carefully so that hopefully it winds up being successful and effective rather than simply a kind of symbolic move. But we all have to focus on Venezuela. As I just said, we are prepared to engage in a full dialogue, and we are prepared to help Venezuela get back on its feet economically. But we’ve got to have an executive authority in Venezuela which is ready to respect the people and respect the rule of law.

QUESTION: But back to my question, would the OAS Democratic Charter be a good idea?

KERRY: I think in principle, yeah. I mean, we support the OAS charter. And there is an OAS meeting coming up soon, and I think this will be a topic of conversation.

QUESTION: Cuba. Are you frustrated or disappointed or angry about the lack of progress on human rights in Cuba since the normalization talks began a year ago or more than a year ago?

KERRY: I think more could happen faster. More should happen faster. But I’m not surprised. Nobody expected this to be an overnight phenomenon. Nobody expected that. This has been 50-plus years now of a status quo, and we all know how deeply entrenched it is.

But there are changes taking place for the positive in the following way: When I was there, my speech as we raised the flag of the United States in Havana for the first time in all those years, was telecast all across the country. I could go talk to people that I wanted. I walked through the streets. I had encounters. Similarly, when President Obama came, he spoke to all the people — he spoke about elections. He spoke about democracy. He spoke about freedom. I met with dissidents. The President met with them. We had deep conversations with the Cuban authorities about those issues, and all of that is for the better.

Our diplomats are now permitted to travel. They don’t have to go get permission. We have an ability to be able to — there are more hot spots with the internet.

QUESTION: But Secretary, your own State Department issued a report yesterday saying that there’s no improvement. So doesn’t that frustrate --

KERRY: What I just said is there is not the level of improvement we’d like to see, that it’s been very reluctant in coming, but we see the benefits of what we’re doing nevertheless. It is not going to change overnight, but it will change. A quarter of Cuban workers today are working in the private sector. That has grown. The numbers of people traveling and engaging on a person-to-person level, the number of businesses engaging — if you look at our engagement with other authoritarian regimes around the world through history, have they changed overnight? China? The former Soviet Union when it was around and we were dealing with it? Other countries in the world? You can run a list of them where it comes with work and with effort.

But I am convinced that it is better to be engaged; better to have the visibility, the transparency, the accountability that comes with it; better to have an embassy that is there and talking and engaging with the people so we know what is happening, than to be completely cut off, which empowers the government to blame everything on us. Now it can’t be blamed on us. It really, I think, is a matter of their response. And I think over time things will change.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is it true a story I heard that the day before President Obama was supposed to go to Cuba, went to Cuba, the trip was almost collapsed because the Cuban Government didn’t want him to meet with dissidents?

KERRY: That’s news to me. I’ve not heard that.

QUESTION: Do you expect the Cuban Communist Party Congress that meets now these days to come up with any changes — economic?

KERRY: I hope. I don’t know. I’m not going to set expectations. But look, they want to be engaged in the world. They want to do business with the world. And they want the world to be able to travel and they want to travel and so forth. If you’re going to do that, you have to lift the embargo. If you’re going to lift the embargo, you’ve got to be able to vote it in the Congress. If you’re going to vote it in the Congress, they’re going to have to make some changes. So it’s up to Cuba. It’s up to the Government of Cuba to decide where they want to go. And the people of Cuba now have greater information, greater input, greater ability to be able to have an impact. I am convinced that over time there will be changes. And we can’t expect the policy that’s been in place for these 50-plus years to suddenly, like that, turn on a dime. It’s not going to happen. It hasn’t happened anywhere else. It took years. But I think it’s going to change because I think there’s an inexorable hope and aspiration in human beings to be able to decide their future and to make choices for themselves.

QUESTION: Donald Trump. I have to ask you about Donald Trump. Are you getting any concerns from your counterparts in Latin America about Trump’s ideas to put a wall on the border, cut remittances?

KERRY: I get enormous expressions of concern not just from Latin America but from all over the world. People are shocked and questioning. I had a conversation this morning with an American chief executive of a company who had just been in Canada, and he said he spent most of his time trying to persuade the Canadian officials he was with that the American people would be sensible enough not to elect Trump president. I mean, this is what he told me. This is the concern, the level of concern that people have. Talking about putting nuclear weapons into the hands of other countries that for years we’ve been struggling to make sure don’t turn towards nuclear weapons — these things are dangerous and we’re living in a very dangerous world as it is.

QUESTION: Talking about that, I wanted to ask you about the Russian jets. Before I ask you that and talking about terrorism and dangers, have you heard any intelligence reports about ISIS in Latin America? Is there a threat as --

KERRY: What we have indications of is efforts by ISIS/Daesh to recruit in Latin America. And yes, there have been some outreach and foreign fighter recruitment efforts, but we do not see a kind of foothold taking — occurring. But nevertheless we are very focused on preventing the foreign fighters phenomenon from taking hold. We’ve increased our efforts on a global basis to prevent foreign fighters from being able to get there, to get out of the countries of origin and to get into the country of conflict, and we’re getting better at that every single day.

QUESTION: Any particular Latin American countries?

KERRY: I don’t want to go into any mention, but there are a number of countries where ISIL has attempted to recruit and it has drawn a few people here and there. But remember, they’ve drawn from everywhere. They’ve drawn from the United States. They’ve drawn from Australia, from France, from Germany, from Britain. There are very — from Russia. One of the reasons Russia is so concerned and is engaged in Syria is because there are several thousand Chechnyans there fighting with ISIL, on behalf of ISIL, and they’re worried about them coming home, as are many countries. So this is a global concern. As President Obama said yesterday, we are making progress, and I am absolutely confident we are going to defeat Daesh.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there was an incident in the Baltic Sea. The Russian aircraft went right over a U.S. Navy ship. What was that? Was that a provocation? Was it a mistake? And if it was the first, how are you going to react?

KERRY: Well, let me say in the strongest terms possible that we condemn this kind of behavior. It is reckless, it is provocative, it is dangerous, it is unprofessional; and under the rules of engagement, that could have been a shoot-down. So people need to understand that this is serious business and the United States is not going to be intimidated in the high seas with respect to our freedom of navigation. But this is unprofessional behavior and we are communicating to the Russians how dangerous this is, and our hope is that this will never be repeated.

QUESTION: Why do you think they did it?

KERRY: I’m not going to speculate.

QUESTION: Final question, Secretary. This is the real last one. In Miami there is a big controversy over Carnival Cruise Lines which has denied --

KERRY: Yeah.

QUESTION: What do you think? Should Carnival change its policy? Should it wait until this — until....

KERRY: Well, let me be very clear about this. The United States Government will never support, never condone discrimination. And the Cuban Government should not be — should not have the right to enforce on us a policy of discrimination against people who have a right to travel. American citizens, Cuban Americans have a right to travel, and we should not be in a situation where the Cuban Government is forcing its discrimination policy on us. So we call on the Government of Cuba to change that policy and to recognize that if they want a full relationship, a normal relationship with the United States, they have to live by international law and not exclusively by their own.

QUESTION: What about Carnival? Should they wait?

KERRY: Carnival needs to not discriminate.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

KERRY: Thank you.

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