(May 16, 2022)
6:36 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for calling in this evening. I know it’s late, so I won’t delay and get us started.
Of note, this is a call that’s on background. So for just your own edification, we have [senior administration official], who is [redacted]. And we also have [senior administration official] — and I apologize if I misspelled her name. And she is also joining us for this call. For both of them, please use a “senior administration official” when you refer to them.
This call is embargoed until — at its conclusion, and I will let you know at the end of the call. If you don’t get a question, but you want to answer one after the fact, feel free to contact me or State Department and we will assist you.
And with that, I will turn it over to you, [senior administration official]. Go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [moderator]. So good afternoon, everybody. And thanks again for jumping on the line.
Today we’re — the United States announced a series of measures to increase support for the Cuban people and safeguard our national security interests.
I’ll say that this is the result of work we’ve been doing over the last year as a part of the policy review of our Cuba policy. It continues to center on human rights and empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future, and we continue to call on the Cuban government to release all political prisoners.
Before jumping in, I want to just very quickly review some of the actions that we’ve been taking since the large-scale protests that took place last July. The President met with the Cuban American community and directed us — following that meeting — to take action in two primary areas.
The first is to promote accountability for human rights abuses, for which we have announced several rounds of sanctions targeting those individuals and entities with direct ties to human rights abuses.
Second, he directed us to explore meaningful ways to support the Cuban people.
So, since then, we’ve prioritized facil- — prioritized and facilitated the export of privately sourced or donated goods to the Cuban people, focusing specifically on agricultural and medical exports; facilitated U.S. private sector faith-based organizations and other NGOs to provide humanitarian support; provided guidance to individuals and entities seeking to export to Cuba for the first time; also increased our support for the families of those who were detained; and increased, by $5 million, our support for censorship circumvention technology to support the ability of the Cuban people to communicate to, from, and among each other.
Now, the measures today, again, are practical steps that we’re taking to address the humanitarian situation and to respond to the needs of the Cuban people.
President Biden is also fulfilling his commitment to the Cuban American community and their family members in Cuba by announcing measures in four key areas, which we plan to implement in the coming weeks — these measures — willing to support greater freedom and expand economic opportunities for the Cuban people.
Now, diving in, the four areas are: First, we’re going to reinstate the Cuba Family Reunification Parole Program and continue to increase the capacity for consular services. So as you all saw, we began — resumed limited immigrant visa processing in early May and are looking to make sure that we staff up so that we can begin processing the full 20,000 immigrant visas out of Havana as quickly as possible.
Second, we will — we’re strengthening family ties and facilitating educational connections for American and Cuban people by expanding authorized travel. And on that, I’ll say specifically authorizing commercial and charter flights to locations beyond Havana. We are reinstating group people-to-people educational travel under a general license, among a number of other measures. We are not reinstating individual people-to-people educational travel.
Third, we are increasing support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs. That includes encouraging commercial opportunities outside the state sector by using their access — independent Cuban entrepreneurs’ access to the Internet, cloud technology, programming interfaces, e-commerce platforms, and a number of other measures, including access to microfinance and training.
And then lastly, we will ensure that remittances flow more freely to the Cuban people while not enriching those who perpetrate human rights abuses. And by that, I mean we are removing the limit on family remittances of $1,000 per quarter per sender/receiver pair. And we’ll authorize donative remittances, which will support Cuban families and independent Cuban entrepreneurs.
Donative remittances will particularly be crucial in supporting the Afro-Cuban community on the island. And I will note that right now only one of six Afro-Cubans receives family remittances. We will not remove entities from the Cuba restricted list, so remittances through FINCIMEX will remain prohibited.
Most importantly, we’re going to continue to elevate the matter of human rights, the treatment of political prisoners, and in particular, we’re going to elevate the issue of labor rights in Cuba as something that — the issue of labor rights, in general, is something that is a core priority for the Biden-Harris administration.
Now, I will now defer to my colleague, who is a versed expert on all the details here, to add additional points. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Nothing for me at the top, but I’m happy to answer questions.
Q Hi, thank you so much for doing this. I do have a — I just have a quick question about Senator Menendez, who just released a statement saying that the announcement today “risks sending the wrong message.” And he says he’s dismayed to learn that the administration will authorize group travel to Cuba. Do you have any reaction? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I mean, what I’ll say — and I’ll allow my colleague to weigh in on this — is that, certainly, the senator’s concerns about establishing the group people-to-people travel under general license opens the door to tourism.
We — I think one thing to underscore is that the Treasury Department has the authority to audit groups that are organizing travel. And we will ensure that that travel is purposeful and in accordance with U.S. law.
[Senior administration official], I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to add to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. We’ll certainly ensure travel is purposeful and in accordance with U.S. law. And we’ll note something that President Biden had said often, which is his belief that Americans are the best ambassadors for democratic values. And facilitating group people-to-people travel will allow for greater engagement between the American people and the promotion of their democratic values.
Q Thank you. I wonder if you’ve reached a decision yet about the Summit of the Americas and whether Cuba will be invited.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So what I’ll say on that is — Karen — is we’ve not made — invitations have not gone out, so there’s not been a decision on that. This — and these policy measures, as I mentioned, have been long in the works, as you well know, and are seen as completely separate from the conversation of who attends and does not attend the summit.
Q Yes, thank you very much. I think that — that was my — my question was the relationship between this process and the Summit of the Americas, and whether — for the countries that have expressed concern about attending the summit in the absence of a Cuban invitation, whether that timing is in any way related to the announcement you’re making today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, so the — I mean, this was always planned for what we’re doing. It’s a coincidence. But I would say that in the conversations we’ve had with other leaders, we have laid out also just the level of ambition of the summit agenda as really where the focus should be. And I think the large majority of interlocutors — and something where Senator Chris Dodd, as special advisor for the summit, has been very active — I think agree that we should be focusing on addressing a whole host of shared challenges in the region and not blow up the summit over who shows up and who doesn’t.
Q Hello. Thank you for doing this. My question goes back to the question before. Why are these changes being announced now? I mean, you say this it’s coincidental, but are these concessions to the Cuban government for the boycott on the Summit of the America? That’s something that people on Capitol Hill actually say right now. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I don’t — I don’t know what “on the Hill” you’re referring to. But, again, these are actions that we see as in the national interest of the United States. They are focused, they’re practical steps we are taking to find ways to expand support for the Cuban people and to do what all Cuban Americans have been asking for, which is for us to reestablish immigrant visa processing in Havana.
I don’t know if, [senior administration official], if there’s anything else you want to add?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a time of concerning — the humanitarian situation in Cuba right now is very concerning. And as the President directed us to find ways to meaningfully support the Cuban people, we assessed that these measures do take steps to do so at a particularly concerning time.
Q Hi, thank you very much for this. I really appreciate it. We know that on the campaign trail President Biden had referred to Trump’s policies as “failed” and wanted to reverse them. Is this going in the step of reversing what many have seen as a maximum-pressure-style campaign against Cuba? And can we expect more measures such as closer — closer relations in terms of normalization of relations? Could this move forward based on the reaction from the Cuban side and their attitude moving forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I — thanks for that question. Again, these — these are steps that, as my colleague mentioned, are intended to help alleviate the humanitarian suffering that prompts out (inaudible) migration from Cuba and also to advance our interest in supporting the Cuban people and ensuring that Cuban Americans and Americans in general are also the best advanced ambassadors for U.S. policy.
You know, measures are ones that are a complement to what has been an active effort since July of last year to increase the pressure on human rights abuses in Cuba and to find ways to provide more direct humanitarian support.
And again, the President’s direction has been to find ways to hold the regime accountable and to support the Cuban people. And that’s been what has informed this policy outcome.
Q Hi. Thank you very much for doing this. I have actually two questions. The first is: Why keep Guyana processing the visas? Why not change everything coming back to Havana? What is impeding you — impeaching you to do so?
And the second question is: Do you have any plans to change the five-year visa that was before, during the administration — during the Obama administration? I understand now it’s only one way. Before that, it was multiple ways for five years. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], do you want to take that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. At this time, we plan to process immigrant visas — many immigrant visas out of Georgetown, Guyana, while we are standing up limited immigrant visa processing in Havana. We intend to resume in short order the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program out of Havana as well.
And the reason we are continuing to process visas out of Guyana is to maximize capacity. We are slowly ramping up capacity in Havana. And as we do so, we do not want to diminish the overall numbers of interviews that we can conduct, and so we’ll keep the Georgetown option open.
And with respect to the question on visa validity for B visas, I do not have anything to share at this time.
Q Yeah, thanks. Thanks very much for doing this. In 2017, the Trump administration scaled back our presence in Havana. And as you just said, we’re going to be increasing our presence. We scaled it back because of concerns about Havana Syndrome. And I was curious what exactly has changed that makes you feel confident that you could put more people in the embassy there.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], you want to take that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. The President directed us to increase staff at Embassy Havana — at U.S. Embassy Havana and to do so with an appropriate security posture.
We have been working over the course of the last several months to put in place a plan to be able to do so. As you know, the top priority of the U.S. government, and Secretary Blinken has said this several times, is the safety and security of U.S. personnel overseas. And we are working closely with all the relevant bureaus in the Department of State and across the interagency as well on plans to investigate and get to the bottom of the anomalous health incidents. And then as we do so, we working to increase staff as an appropriate security posture at U.S. Embassy Havana.
Q Thanks very much. Two quick questions. First, just following up on that last one: While you haven’t come to a conclusion about Havana Syndrome, are you now persuaded that the Cuban government was not responsible?
And more to the question of the sanctions relief here: Take us a little bit into the logic of not going back to the kind of sanctions relief that the Obama administration, or I should say Obama-Biden administration, had in place at the end of their time in office. And what are you getting from the leverage of holding back on some of the sanctions relief?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I’ll answer the second part and then defer to my colleague on the first part. Look, I think, fundamentally, these policies are ones that are designed to advance our own national interests and U.S. national security policy, specifically expanding the ability to process visas outside Havana. And the other is very specific steps and — specific and practical steps to create bridges to the Cuban people.
I think that what we’re going to be doing over the next several months is focusing on implementing these steps and which — you know, some of which are going to take place faster than others. We’re going to monitor the situation in Cuba and the effects of our actions.
But I’ll say that the crackdown by the Cuban regime after the July 11th protests were there for, I think, the world to see. And the sentences that were imposed on people that were just singing in the streets and asking for food and to have a greater say in the future of their country really shows the situation — the lack of respect for human rights on the island. And that’s something that is at the core of President Biden’s approach to the Americas and, frankly, the world.
But these are steps that we thought were designed to get specifically to the Cuban people and that were in our unilateral interest.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And with respect to your question about the anomalous health incidents, I’ll say that we are working across the interagency and State Department and with allies around the world as well to get to the bottom of the anomalous health incidents. And at this moment, we do not have a conclusion as to the attribution.
Q (Inaudible) much for doing this. I was hoping you could say when do you anticipate the invites for the summit to go out. And while I’m just considering this is one of the few times we’ll probably get to ask you questions about this — you know, this — you know, on this (inaudible) — can you talk any — a little bit about what goes into making the decisions of who to invite; you know, what are the factors that are being considered? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So, I guess the plan is to send the invitations soon. And the — I guess the rationale is, look, the host has wide discretion. And we’ll — but we start by looking at the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the criteria that it established for inviting leaders from democratically elected governments.
I think the question of expanding that is one where we consult with our partners in the region. We have these debates about who to invite, but ultimately it is the prerogative of the host to make that decision.
Q Hello, good afternoon. So I have specific questions on the measures. First, do you have a timeline for when you expect the embassy in Havana to be working at full capacity where you think you’ll be meeting the 20,000 visa quota agreed with the Cuban government? That’s one.
The other: You say the authorizing of commercial and charter flights. So you expect that the frequencies that were available before the sanctions will be available again? And you said cities different from Havana.
And on the remittances: So you’re lifting their limit on 1,000 percent [sic] per quarter, but you’re not excluding the Cuban entity. So how are people going to send the money? And how will this specific measure benefit Afro-Cubans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Would you like to take to the first question?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. And forgive me, can you repeat the first question?
Q How quickly are we going to get up to 20,000 in Havana?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, perfect. I do not have a timeframe at this time, unfortunately. We are working with our colleagues in the State Department and also Department of Homeland Security, which manages the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, to determine the pace at which we can increase capacity and visa issuance and parole practicing.
We aim to, and have every intent to, be in compliance with the migration accords. And the recent migration talks that were held last month between the United States and Cuba sought to bring both countries into compliance with their commitments for safe, legal, and orderly migration as enshrined in the migration accords.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On your second question is — so the implementation of these measures, I think we’re going to be working to move very quickly to execute on them over the course of weeks and months.
And when it comes to the question of visa (inaudible) or of remittance processing, certainly providing reassurance to third, kind of, electronic payment companies that there is bipartisan support for electronic payments — that is something that’s going to take time but it’s something we’re going to focus a lot on.
On not removing FINCIMEX from the Cuba restricted list: Cuba is unique in the world at having the military play a role in remittance processing. If they were — you know, and we’ve engaged with them to underscore that if there was a civilian entity that could do the processing, that that would be something that would be acceptable, recognizing that what we want to work toward is having electronic payments expand to the extent that that’s possible.
So the decisions — the ball is in their court to decide.
MODERATOR: All right, everybody. Well, that was the last question. Thank you so much for attending again. Remember, this is a call on background, attributed to “senior administration officials.” And the embargo is now lifted.
Thank you so much.
7:01 P.M. EDT