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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preview of the President's Travel to Kingston, Jamaica and Panama City, Panama

Roberta S. Jacobson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Office of the Secretary

Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ricardo Zuniga
Washington, DC
April 7, 2015

2:00 P.M. EDT


MR ZUNIGA: So thank you very much. So I’m going to start just with a quick overview of the President’s itinerary and then Roberta will kind of walk through some of the substance of the meetings and the work that’s been done to prepare for this event.
So this is the President’s eighth visit to the Americas, eighth visit to the region as president, and it’s going to be his third Summit of the Americas and it will be his final Summit of the Americas. So we see this very much as an opportunity to set the President’s legacy and follow up on the pragmatic course that he’s adopted in his relations with the region throughout his Administration.
The President is going to start with a stop in Jamaica, will arrive the evening of April 8th, and he’ll have meetings in Jamaica with Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, a meeting with CARICOM heads of state, and then he’ll do a town hall at the University of the West Indies with students from throughout the Caribbean.

We'll depart Jamaica on April the 9th and arrive in Panama, and in Panama the President will do – he’ll begin with a meeting with the President Juan Carlos Varela, then he’ll have a meeting with the leaders of the Central American Integration System – that’s eight leaders in Central America, plus the Dominican Republic. He will have – he’ll participate in the CEO Forum, the CEO summit that’s taking place and will be starting already before we arrive in Panama. He’ll be there for the closing elements of the CEO Forum, and he’ll be accompanied by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Panama for that event.
Then he will participate in the Civil Society Forum and speak at the Civil Society Forum, and then proceed to a roundtable with a cross section of civil society representatives from across the region. Following that, he will go into the inauguration ceremony for the Summit of the Americas and will participate in the events throughout the Summit of the Americas, ending the afternoon of Saturday, April 11th. And then after that, he’ll be departing Panama and returning to Washington.

So, Roberta.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Sounds like a pretty exciting trip. This summit I think comes at a particularly important moment. Ricardo left out one of the things that people have been focusing on, but it is important – we both feel very strongly that sort of guest-list diplomacy is not what this summit is about, but it is true that 35 countries will be at this summit for the first time, and that is important. The President feels strongly from the first days of summitry in his tenure, in 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago, that he is all about equal partnerships in this hemisphere. And so one of the nice things about bracketing his tenure, beginning in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, and having his last summit be this summit in Panama is the ability to round out, if you will, his terms in the Americas with having all 35 countries in Panama after the December 17th announcement on Cuba.

But he also believes that it’s an important time in the Americas to take stock of where we are and to make sure that these partnerships that we’ve created among ourselves in the Americas focus on the things that our people want most of all. That gets at what I think the President realizes are our strengths – that is pragmatic focus on what people are looking for, non-ideological focuses on education, on getting energy to people, getting energy costs lowered, focusing on democracy and human rights both where they’re strong and vibrant and places in which they may have backslid and how we can ensure that they are strong in the hemisphere, this hemisphere, which was among the first – the first to have a charter, a strong international document defending human rights.

Process-wise, I think it’s also a very important summit because summits began as meetings of leaders, and they were just governmental leaders. But as we saw in Cartagena, the CEO Summit was a real hit that the Colombians put together with the IDB. And since Cartagena in the last three years, you’ve had the Americas business dialogue develop and provide what will be a permanent forum for the private sector to give input to leaders and to have a dialogue with leaders so that that sector of civil society is well represented and has good input, can hear from leaders, and can give their input to leaders, because we know that that’s critically important to ensuring the region’s competitiveness and to providing jobs for people throughout the hemisphere.

Similarly, the civil society component of this summit is really quite new. It will have members from civil society from all 35 countries. It will have an opportunity for leaders to speak to and hear from those members of civil society, and what we’re hoping is that it will have a permanent mechanism as well, because civil society should also be able to express their views permanently, even between summits.
So these are the ways in which I think this summit can be different than previous summits. There’ll be education represented in rectors of universities and institutions. There will also be other institutions that are represented at this summit. The Panamanians chose a theme of prosperity with equity, which I think is an important one for this region. We’ve often talked about social inclusion and the importance of decreasing inequality in the hemisphere. That’s a real challenge for all of us, to continue to see growth as the commodity boom recedes, while ensuring that the benefits of that growth get out to people who may have been left out of the millions of people who moved into the middle class in the last 15 years in the region.

So we believe that the President and the Secretary, who will accompany the President, will have a great opportunity to see a lot of their counterparts, to talk about issues that mean a lot to the people of all of the countries of the Americas, and to do so in a way in which they hear not just from each other as leaders to leaders but also from citizens of their countries, representing various different interest groups, whether it’s environmental or students or entrepreneurs or women, and enable them to get a better picture of how their policies are affecting people on the ground.

MODERATOR: And with that, we’ll go into the Q&A. I’d like to just remind everybody, please wait for the microphones. We are transcribing. And please do identify yourself by name and outlet. We have a lot of people to ask questions, already hands up. (Inaudible). Over to you. Other --

QUESTION: Hi. Claudia Trevisan, from the Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo. I’d like to know if there is going to be any interaction and what kind of interaction – it’s a private meeting, a pull-aside meeting – between President Obama and President Dilma Rousseff. And if there is some kind of meeting, what the U.S. expect from meeting, what would be discussed, and if Venezuela, the situation in Venezuela, is one of the issues. Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: So the only formal bilateral meeting that we’re going to have is going to be with President Varela of Panama. We expect that there’s going to be interaction between the President and a number of leaders, and certainly President Rousseff is one of those that the President looks forward to having an opportunity to speak to.
Certainly we are going to talk about what should be a very strong bilateral agenda. That’s something that both President Rousseff and we have spoken to, on issues of trade, on issues of security and defense cooperation, on a whole range of matters. And one of those certainly is going to be the situation in the region and taking the broad perspective, the issues that we need to deal with.

Certainly there is a great deal of concern in many countries in the Americas about the economic, social, and political conditions inside of Venezuela. That would be one topic, but there’s quite a bit of other discussion to be had about kind of our broader objectives in the region. Certainly we’re going to want to talk about Central America. We should talk about how our engagement with Cuba is changing our overall relationship in the Americas.

So again – and Brazil is a country with which we have a global relationship, so I imagine that we’re also going to want to talk – our presidents would want to talk about precisely that, that global perspective, to include developments in the Middle East and Asia and elsewhere. So certainly I expect that there will be a very substantive exchange between our leaders.

MODERATOR: Also recognizing there’s a multiregional crowd here though, our principals are willing to take questions in Spanish, if you’d like to pose them in Spanish. I’m going to go here. We had a question. And then I’ll come back into the middle there.

QUESTION: (In Spanish.)

MR ZUNIGA: (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go to Sonia and then we’ll go in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sonia Schott today with RCN TV, Colombia. Can you confirm or deny some reports coming from CNN that the U.S. is ready to remove Cuba from the terrorist list in two or three days, as soon as before the summit? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, I mean what I can tell you is that, obviously, the President asked the Secretary of State to review Cuba’s listing on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List. The State Department has been in the process of doing that for the last couple of months, and I think it’s very clear that we’re at the end of that process. We are finalizing that work and at the point that we are – it will be up to the Secretary of State as to when he gets ready to transmit that information to the White House, when he looks at it, when it goes to the White House, when the President reviews it. So you’re getting to the end of a process. I can’t tell you exactly when everything is going to roll out. But we are at the end of that process. We are finishing this up. When exactly everything is going to happen one can’t say, because it’s not complete yet.

QUESTION: But could happen anytime?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I just don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen.

QUESTION: But before the summit, right?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I don’t know that. I don’t know that.

QUESTION: So it may not?

MODERATOR: We need to wait for the microphone.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think that we need to open the possibility of may or may not.

MR ZUNIGA: Right. But we’re – (laughter). We’re not going to get ahead of decisions that are going to be taken by the Secretary of State or the President of the United States.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ll take the question in the far back and then we’ll move right here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thomas Paggini, Swiss Broadcasting. Formal bilateral meetings aside, what kind of interaction and what kind of developments can we expect between President Obama and President Castro?

MR ZUNIGA: I’m sorry, if I understood the question right, it was aside from formal meetings?

QUESTION: Yeah, aside – I mean, you said there’s just going to be one bilateral meeting, but that aside, I mean, I imagine there’s going to be some kind of interaction between the two of them. What can we --

MR ZUNIGA: Yeah. So I would say two things. First is, that’s absolutely correct. The only formal bilateral meeting that we’re going to have is with President Varela. The second part of this is that I can assure you that the President is going to have interactions with most of the leaders of the region, just as part of the natural part of this summit. There is a portion of this summit that includes a private meeting for leaders only, where typically that’s led to a great deal of interaction between the leaders.

The reason we can’t describe to you what that interaction is going to be is because it’s something that is going to evolve during the time on the ground. I am sure that the President will have time to meet essentially with all the leaders of the region, if not in his meetings in Jamaica with the CARICOM leaders or with SICA leaders in Panama during the sessions where the leaders are together speaking privately. And of course, there will be multiple events that I’m quite sure will be closely watched throughout and tracked, where there’ll be many opportunities.

This is, of course, a very important historic occasion, but they were together also in South Africa at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. We have no doubt that there’s going to be a great deal of attention paid to this, but we’ll just have to see what actually happens on the ground.

MODERATOR: We’ll go into the middle.

QUESTION: Dolia Estevez with MVS radio from Mexico. I have two quick questions following up on the issue of Castro and President Obama. When both announced that they were going to start talks towards normalization of diplomatic relationship, there was a big expectation that there was going to be a meeting at the Summit of the Americas, and that expectation started to collapse – let’s put it that way – as that conversations didn’t get too far. Is there any chance that that meeting could still happen, beyond the interaction that could take place within the summit, a last-minute thing that maybe you could take Cuba out of the list and things move faster? I don’t know.

And the other question has to do with human rights. It seems to me that human rights will be a big issue during this summit. And I was wondering, Roberta, if you have anything to say about this big dispute between Mexico and the human rights special rapporteur on torture?

They came out with a strong report saying that torture in Mexico is generalized and has created a lot of tensions to the point that the Mexican Government told this man, Mendez, that he can’t get involved anymore with human rights issues in Mexico. I was wondering if you have anything to comment on that.

MR ZUNIGA: So let me just take one second on the first question, which is that essentially we’re going to have to see how this meeting evolves. What I will say is, just to give some context here, when both presidents made this announcement December 17th we also talked about the challenges involved in transforming a relationship that had gone through a period of hostility for more than 50 years. So the work that Roberta has undertaken with her counterpart in Cuba to advance the bilateral relationship represents a truly extraordinary level of progress between two countries that have been divided for so long. And it really is remarkable the level of exchange on practical issues that has continued and has advanced between our two countries.

But also what has naturally come out is the fact that – what the President acknowledged from the moment of his announcement on December 17th is we remain divided by profound differences on issues related to democracy, to human rights, and so forth. So while we expect to see some progress, naturally there’s going to be some challenges in getting to the point that we want to get. I will say this: I mean, our sense is that our talks are progressing exactly as we would want them to be progressing and dealing with the issues in a serious way, exactly as we would want our officials to be doing on a relationship that’s this important.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thanks, Ricardo. On the question of Mexico, I think what I would say is that we have been pleased, certainly up until now, with all of the cooperation that Mexico has given to international human rights organizations, international human rights bodies. There’s been an active dialogue between the Government of Mexico and lots of human rights organizations, whether they are international NGOs, UN bodies, et cetera. And it seems to us that this government, its predecessor have been just worlds more open to that engagement with the international community on human rights than any of the predecessors before that, and that’s huge.
And I think that there is obviously a difference on this report and on this rapporteur that I’m not going to be able to judge – that I certainly cannot judge. But I do think that this Mexican Government has taken enormous strides on trying to follow up on human rights reporting, on creating the kinds of steps in response to problems on human rights to follow up. There are active debates on – in Congress on measures to be implemented. And there are clearly acknowledgments of problems still to be solved, but I think that the issue of one rapporteur’s report and the Mexican Government’s view on that is something that needs to be worked out between those parties.

QUESTION: But then you would disagree with the report, since the State Department doesn’t say that torturing in Mexico is generalized?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: We do not. We have not said that. That is – we have not said that, and frankly, that has not been the way we have characterized it in our human rights reports.

MODERATOR: We have time for only a few more questions, so I’m going to go here (inaudible).

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Flavia Barbosa with Brazilian newspaper O Globo. Venezuela is a (inaudible) issue in the summit. If we talk to the negotiators, there is no final declaration, there is no draft. Negotiations are stalled. Is that a problem? I would like you to comment. How bad is it for the region in these important moments of re-engagement and et cetera not to have a final declaration which is also a mandate for the multilateral organizations to work and et cetera?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So my view on that is that, first of all, I would remind you that at least the last two and maybe beyond that Summits of the Americas have not had communiques that come out. I will tell you that when you get 35 presidents together – heads of government – 34 states were involved in working on a potential document – it is incredibly difficult to get a document that everyone can agree on.

I will also tell you that to the extent that you get documents that everyone agrees on, my experience has been they’re not worth much, because they tend to get so watered down and become so general that they aren’t really blueprints or mandates for action. They’re a lot of very general rhetoric about lowest common denominator. And frankly, while that may be – that may make you feel good that everyone agreed on something, it lasts for about five hours.

So this is about very, very concrete things that we might all agree to, whether they’re put down on paper, whether they’re codified in a session that the presidents all have or in actions that we take afterwards to follow up through the secretariat and through the actions that national governments take themselves – which I think really is the most telling action – that every government then implements themselves in a sovereign way. That to me is much more important than whether we get a piece of paper that says, “I will commit to something that is nonbinding and doesn’t really mean that much.”

So I’m not particularly bothered by that, whether we can get a document or not. If we do get a document in this summit, maybe that will be terrific. But I have to tell you, we haven’t had one in the past, and I think this summit is going to come out with a lot of very concrete things that governments implement, which will really be the test of every country’s commitment to these principles.

MODERATOR: I’m going to go to the far – to the middle back. Right, yes. She’s had her hand up for a while.

QUESTION: Diana Castaneda, NTN24. (In Spanish.)

MR ZUNIGA: (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR: I think we have time for two more questions. We’ll go here to the front.

QUESTION: Thank you to the FPC for doing this, and thank you for coming over. My name is Andrei Sitov. I am a Russian reporter here in Washington, D.C. with TASS. And obviously, I have a Russia-related question, but I also did want to ask about Cuba after the normalization. By the way, congratulations on this initiative, long overdue.

I spoke to a Cuban diplomat, was surprised to find out they don’t even have a bank account. So I guess my question is: How soon do you expect, even after you make the decision and announce the decision, to remove Cuba from all your sanctions list – how soon do you expect the life to normalize for diplomats on both sides to work in both capitals? How much time can it take?

And my Russia-related – and Congress. Would Congress have a say in this, and how confident are you that it will not delay the process even further?

My Russia-related question is about the recent activities. The Russian foreign minister recently paid a visit to Central America, and the Russians in general seem to be paying much more attention to the region. How do you view that from the State Department and the White House? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thanks, and let me go ahead and start. Let me be clear about the banking issue. The banking issue for the Cuban Interests Section here in Washington is really quite unrelated to the issue of the December 17th announcements or even directly to the state sponsor of terrorism list. The Cuban Interests Section, unfortunately, has not had a bank serving it for a year or a little more. This is a function of the fact that many banks in the United States and others have gotten out of the business of serving foreign missions. Many countries are having this problem. Cuba is having it more than others because of various sanctions that it has on it, but many countries are having this problem of finding a bank to take its local business.

And it’s a problem which the State Department has been helping many governments with, but particularly with the Cuban Government we have been helping them try to find a bank for over a year. That didn’t start just with the President’s announcement, but clearly, we believe it to be even more acute since the President’s announcement. And so we’ve been working very hard and believe that we are – the Cuban Government is working on that as well, and we believe that we’re close to a solution for that. So that is very good news, as I say, separate and apart from every other issue.

But the issue of a normal life, I think, obviously, normalizing relations means just that. And I think that the ability to have the bank account, the ability to travel freely, the ability to act as other diplomats do in the United States reciprocally, to give our diplomats those reciprocal rights is a very important thing that we would hope can happen as soon as we have embassies open.

In the issue of Congress, the things that I’ve just outlined in terms of diplomatic life and openings of – opening of embassies are within the purview of the Executive Branch, and so we don’t anticipate that opening embassies or how our diplomats act will be an issue for Congress. Obviously, when we are at a point where we have to request funds from Congress, that’s a different story.

On the question of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Cuba, obviously, Russia has had a long relationship with Cuba, so it is neither surprising nor alarming in any particular sense that there was such a visit. We have seen statements by the foreign minister when he was in Cuba, when he has visited other places, and we obviously have a relationship with Russia in which we discuss all of the subjects of mutual interest. But we are neither surprised nor particularly alarmed that that relationship is continuing. They’re not mutually exclusive. And we’re happy to be beginning a relationship with Cuba at this point that will be more normal.

MODERATOR: We have time for one last very quick question, I think, if we want to move to a different topic, perhaps. I’ll go here, the left, the one with the bow tie.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: See, that makes it easy to call on you, right? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you, yes, I wore it for that reason. (Laughter.) I want to ask about the role neighboring countries and Venezuela have in the discussions there.
(In Spanish.)


MR ZUNIGA: (In Spanish.)


QUESTION: (In Spanish.) Follow-up?


MODERATOR: We don’t have any more time for follow-up, I’m sorry. We’ll try to hook you up with the question later, and been very generous with their time. Thank you very much, and with that, that’s the end of the briefing and we are officially off the record. Thank you.