Briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael G. Kozak On Human Rights Concerns in Cuba

Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

Via Teleconference

MR BROWN: Good afternoon. Welcome to this on-the-record call on human rights concerns in Cuba. Today we have Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak with us to discuss the Cuban regime’s harassment of activists peacefully protesting the imprisonment of human rights defender Denis Solis Gonzalez, a member of the San Isidro Movement. Ambassador Kozak will begin with some remarks, and then take your questions. As a reminder, the content of the briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, and for the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to go ahead and get into the question queue, just dial 1 and then 0.

With that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Kozak.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well thanks, Cale, and thank all of you for joining us to discuss the recent protests by diverse groups of activists and artists in Cuba. These events are a watershed moment for human rights in Cuba.

Let me start by taking a moment to talk about U.S. policy toward Cuba, and especially support for the Cuban people. Under this administration, we have sought to refine U.S. policy. For years the policy sought to block financial transactions with Cuban persons – whether they be individuals, institutions, associations – across the board. Then we tried to authorize some activities – professional exchanges, remittances, and others – while barring other activities. Now this administration has taken that further and has focused on who benefits the most from a certain transaction – the regime or the Cuban people. So we have focused on denying the Castro regime the resources it uses to fund its repression in Cuba and its malign interference in Venezuela. And we’ve done this through targeted sanctions on the Cuban military, security, and intelligence institutions. We aim to strengthen Cuba’s civil society and private sector, but not the repressive Cuban regime.

Through use of the Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List and the Cuba Restricted List, we have restricted U.S. travel that supports regime-controlled hotels and tourism facilities, redirecting this income to support private Cuban businesses like bed-and-breakfasts. Now, spending by U.S. travelers will primarily benefit Cuban entrepreneurs instead of the Castro regime.

Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere where the military takes a cut of remittances. Worst yet, it had succeeded in establishing a near monopoly on the hard currency that those remittances generate. When we blocked the Cuban armed forces from manipulating the processing of remittances, we were careful to leave space for remittances to continue to flow through private and civilian channels as long as they don’t enrich the military.

Now what’s been happening is that the military seizes hard currencies for its own purposes, using it to fund its interference in Venezuela and prop up its own failing business ventures. They also then take their cut and force the Cuban individuals to use what remains of their remittance funds to only buy goods at marked-up prices from regime-controlled stores.

So we have raised international awareness of – we have also raised international awareness of the abuses in the overseas Cuban medical missions, a profit-making enterprise that is the number one source of income for the Castro regime. We have worked to protect the doctors while cutting off this revenue to the regime. The regime deprives its own medical personnel of up to 90 percent of their salaries – salaries that the doctors earn, but never see.

Countries that host Cuban workers should directly deposit the professionals’ salaries in their own personal bank accounts instead of filling the regime’s coffers. And some countries have demonstrated that this can be done despite regime resistance.

So, all of these targeted efforts have made a real impact to benefit and empower the Cuban people.

In terms of recent developments, I would note that over Thanksgiving weekend, a diverse group of hundreds of Cuban activists and artists gathered to protest peacefully in front of the regime’s Ministry of Culture. Particularly noteworthy was the presence of many creative professionals who had not before engaged in opposition to the regime.

What were they protesting? Well, members of the San Isidro Movement, which Cale mentioned, have become targets of continual harassment and arbitrary detentions by the regime. But there is a broader rejection of moves to repress free expression, especially Decree Number 349, which forces artists to seek the government’s permission to perform, even in private spaces. It also gives the regime the power to suspend any performance at will – subjecting all expressions of art in Cuba to the regime’s censorship.

Now, in the face of this protest, Cuban officials did something that we have rarely if ever seen. They met with representatives from the group of protestors and agreed to their modest demands to allow more freedom of expression and to conduct further discussions.

Now within hours, the regime was back to its usual dusty playbook, reneging on the commitments it had made, launching a smear and disinformation campaign, and stepping up harassment and surveillance of the activists. I guess they concluded that if they started negotiating with demonstrators, they would have a lot more demonstrators on their hands. But they did this at the expense of showing that they are entirely unable to keep a promise they made just a week ago, and which was a mere promise to honor their own citizens’ rights.

Now, several democracies as the EU Parliament, the Czech and Dutch governments, and international organizations have released statements condemning the regime’s action. We were glad to see the strong international response.

Now in the meantime, while this going on in Cuba, hundreds of Cuban military and intelligence advisors continue to actively support and prop up the Maduro dictatorship. They equip the Maduro regime with the tools they need to repress any domestic dissent, including dissent within Venezuela’s military. In exchange, Maduro steals his own country’s oil and diesel and ships it to Cuba, while Venezuelans endure long fuel lines and hunger.

We believe that we and the international community must take action to put an end to this intervention in Venezuela. It has led to the worst humanitarian catastrophe in our hemisphere. Respect for the human rights of Cubans must remain the key aim of U.S. engagement with Cuba. And until Cuba ceases treating Venezuela like a colony, the issues of Cuba and Venezuela cannot be treated separately. Our increasingly targeted approach to sanctions in Cuba is designed to further those aims while simultaneously enhancing the ability of the Cuban people to pursue political, economic, and social goals of their own independent of the regime.

Now I would be glad to take your questions.

MR BROWN: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1-0 at this time.

MR BROWN: Okay. First let’s go to the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Hi there. Ambassador, can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yes, I can hear you loud and clear Matt. Go ahead.

QUESTION: All right. Excellent. Two real brief ones. First of all, you say that all of – all of what you guys have done is to benefit the Cuban people, but Western Union shut down all of their shops for remittances in the last month in a half or so. And I don’t see how that benefits the Cuban people. So can you explain how that is a benefit to the Cuban people if they – that Western Union is no longer doing this because of U.S. sanctions?

And then secondly – and I don’t really expect an answer on this, but I’m just – you’ve seen obviously the National Academy of Science’s report about the quote, unquote “health attacks.” I’m wondering if this is – what you think of that and whether or not the State Department has come to any conclusion about what happened to your people in Havana. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay. Thank you. Well, on the first one, as I tried to allude in my – in my opening remarks, I mean the problem with – and in fact the Western Union arrangement was something that we worked to set up back in the day when I was down there. But what had happened over time was that the Cuban regime had required Western Union to bank exclusively with FINCIMEX, which is a bank run by the Cuban military. So effectively, what they had managed to do is get a monopoly. All the hard currency that came in from remittances – and that’s a substantial amount of money – was going into the military’s coffers. And then what the individuals that the money was destined for got in return was like a ATM card that they could use to buy stuff at military-controlled stores at inflated prices. So this has been sort of a gradual thing over time, and our attitude was okay, enough of this.

So we’ve tried to give – if the regime would let Western Union bank with somebody other than the military, they’re free to do that. Nobody has told – nobody on our side has told them that they need to shut down. It’s the Cuban side that shut them down because they have so far insisted on that they must bank with the military.

But second, our thinking is that there are other channels for remittances to be sent, including informal ones that pre-date the whole Western Union side of things, and those are still available and can still be used. So what we’re trying to do is steer people who are trying to get money to their families to say, “Use a channel that will actually get the money to your family rather than a channel that sends it to the Cuban military.”

So yeah, there is a disruption. We regret that the Cuban side has so far not allowed different arrangements for Western Union, because obviously, it’s a convenient thing. But we think it’s better in the end that people send their money by vehicles that are going to ensure that they get to their relatives.

On the National Academy of Sciences report, I would just say I think you’ve heard already from our spokespeople. It’s obviously something we value very much. We’ve had a number of activities where experts have looked at this thing, trying to figure out what happened to our people, and this is a good contribution to that line of thinking or to that analysis and investigation. That’s just the stage we’re at right now.

MR BROWN: Great, thanks. Let’s go to the next question and the line of Will Mauldin.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. I just wanted to know if you had any observations about – from the standpoint of someone in Cuba, does this administration’s approach differ that much from the previous administrations given that a lot of the embargo was still in place either way you go about it? Do you think it makes sense to have different approaches to Cuba to try to get things to change there, and to some extent Venezuela? And are there limitations as to what sanctions can achieve in places like this?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah, well, look, I mean, I think – I’m not going to try to speak for other administrations because these days, I speak for the current administration. But I think if you go back and look historically, that there’s been a lot of continuity in Cuba policy going back many, many years, because the problem has been essentially the same. Every administration confronts the same set of problems and is looking for ways to deal with it.

I would, though, make an observation of why, at this time, the kind of approach we’re taking we think has a good chance of success. And that is if you look at – historically at Cuba, the reason they were able at the beginning to impose such draconian, repressive measures that drove out most of the entrepreneurs in the country, that shut down student associations, newspapers, every form of civil society, they were able to do that even though it destroyed the Cuban economy because they had a huge external subsidy for many, many years from the Soviet Union.

In the ’90s when that subsidy went away – so basically the Cuban economy is set up to be a parasite. It lives off somebody else. When that went away in the ’90s, they were confronted with real, serious problems that they couldn’t feed their own people, they couldn’t pay the – everybody to work for the government, and they had to come to terms with that and ended up with a series of what obviously were very limited, but still were liberalizing measures where they authorized people to grow food on their own account and to sell them in more or less open-market circumstances where they authorized cuentapropistas the small business-type activities – restaurants, shoe repair, and things like that. And people started to have a greater sense of and reality of independence from the government, the country started to benefit from that – that kind of free activity, and there was a real change going on in Cuban society.

But what happened in 1998 when Hugo Chavez won in Venezuela, and my Cuban friends at the time were bragging on how he had been one of their projects and they were so excited about this, they started getting a big subsidy from Venezuela. And they immediately reversed all of those liberalizing measures and went back to their more repressive mode.

Now what’s going on now and what we’re kind of excited about is that the Cuban side – Venezuela, while it’s still prioritized as shipping fuel to Cuba over shipping it to its own people, it simply isn’t in the position of having the kind of largess it had before, so the income from that has dwindled down. And we’ve been trying with the measures that I just mentioned to avoid us becoming the substitute by going to stay in Cuban Government or Cuban military-run hotels and so on. And what is happening is that once again they’re having to look around.

They can be friends with Russia, they can be friends with China, they can be friends with Iran, but none of those countries are in a position to subsidize them. And so that’s where we see that this is what really empowers the Cuban people is that at some point, the government’s going to have to say, okay, in order for us to be able to put food on the table and stuff, we’re simply going to have to come to terms with our own people and open up.

So it’s forcing a bit of a negotiation between the government and the people of Cuba, and I think this cultural demonstration over Thanksgiving weekend was a good example of that. These were not traditional dissidents who, by and large, that were out protesting. It was – these are the sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters of regime officials who were saying: Why is it that we can’t even perform without clearing it with a censor in the regime?

So I think the more that – this is an optimum time right now in Cuban history. They’re under pressure to have to come to terms with their own people. If we can avoid giving them an escape valve, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with these measures I mentioned, then there’s a better chance that people there will be able to make a better pact with their own government than they have now.

MR BROWN: Thanks. For the next question, let’s go to the line of David Alandete.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MR BROWN: Yes, loud and clear.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador Kozak. I wanted to ask you about – you have made the point of relating the situation in Venezuela with the situation in Cuba and the presence of, like, Cubans in Venezuela right now.

Last weekend, last Sunday during the vote, Maduro surrounded himself by some former leaders, including Evo Morales, and he also had the former prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who actually said that the problem that both regimes are facing is more a problem of sanctions, and he blamed more directly than indirectly the United States for the plight of the Venezuelans and, for extension, the Cubans. So I wanted to ask you about this presence of Zapatero there, who was there not as an official envoy, but who was supporting Maduro and the elections that – or the so-called elections that took place on this Sunday. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you. Well, I mean, I think former President Zapatero has a history with Maduro and Venezuela, and so I guess we wouldn’t be surprised that he would continue along those lines. On his – what you’re telling me is his statements concerning sanctions, with Venezuela particularly, I would note that the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry and everything preceded any U.S. sanctions. They had managed through sheer force of their own mismanagement and corruption to destroy one of the richest economies in the region and turn it into one of the poorest. So to try to attribute that to sanctions that postdated that event just is wrong. You can’t make that case.

Cuba – I actually had a conversation once with one of the historicos there who was saying, “We’re just a poor, underdeveloped country,” and one of my colleagues from a socialist country in Latin America said, “Don’t say that.” He said, “You’re not an underdeveloped country, you’re an undeveloping country; unlike the rest of us, you inherited a really robust economy and you ran it into the ground.” And I think – I mean that’s long, long ago, but it is true. Cuba – look, you get into these arguments all the time. Okay, maybe Cuba can’t buy Fords and Chevies from the United States, but it can buy Peugeots or Volkswagens or Kias or Toyotas. Why don’t they buy them? Because they don’t produce anything anyone in the world wants to buy, and that is their big problem. They have a just horribly mismanaged, statist economy that doesn’t work well.

That’s why I’m saying the real opportunity here is that if the government – they have been able to maintain that because of external subsidies. If they don’t have the external subsidies, they will be forced again, as there were in the ’90s, to have to give their own people enough freedom to generate some economic activity, and that’s good for the Cuban people and that’s why we support it.

MR BROWN: Next let’s go to the line of Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: Make sure you can hear me before I ask my question.

MR BROWN: We hear you, Lara.

QUESTION: So I also wanted to ask about Venezuela, since you’ve talked – Ambassador, you’ve talked about how Venezuela and Cuba are linked. I’m just – there’s been some suggestion that the Biden administration is going to try to reengage with Maduro on some level, maybe not acknowledging his government or that he is – remains in power as the legal government, but to somehow engage him in a way that – using more of a persuasion campaign instead of a pressure campaign. I’m just wondering given your time in the region, given your experience and background, what you would say to that kind of approach. Would that be something that could actually move the ball forward given that Maduro is still there?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah. Well, first, I obviously cannot speak for a different administration, only for this one. But I can say that the fact that we don’t recognize the Maduro regime as the lawful government of Venezuela – and we clearly don’t – doesn’t mean that we don’t have any communication with people in that regime. But the problem is when you think about it, if you go back to last March 31, we released our vision of a democratic transition framework for Venezuela that tried to give assurances to the PSUV party – the socialist party that Maduro comes from – that they would have a suitable role in any transition and would continue to be part of the political life of the country. We tried to show that there were guarantees there for the different institutions of the Venezuelan state that they would continue to persist and have influence and that nobody was going to have vengeance taken upon them and that kind of thing.

What’s interesting is in the – all the contacts you get with senior officials of that government, nobody wants to talk about any of those things, which you – any of us would think that that would be the first thing on their mind. Instead, what they want to know is: How do I get the charges that the Justice Department has against me for drug dealing reduced? How do I get access to my bank account? And how do I get my mistress access to her bank account? Those are the three commonly communicated things.

So what – I think anybody thinking about dealing with that regime is that you’re dealing with basically selfish criminals, not with people who have the welfare of their institutions or of their country at heart. And that does make it very difficult to deal with them.

So I’m not going to – I can explain what we’ve been trying to do, as I just did, obviously; for others, they will have to take their own counsel. But that’s the nature of the problem as I see it.

MR BROWN: Okay. I think we have time for one more, if someone wants to dial 1 then 0. We’ll give it, yeah, 20 seconds or so. Okay. Last question we’ll go to —


MR BROWN: We’ll go to the line of Beatriz Pascual.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I just wanted to follow up on the question that David Alandete made about Zapatero and Spain. Have you had any contact with the Spanish Government about the presence of Zapatero in Venezuela? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay, thank you. Yeah, I am – I don’t want to give a definitive answer because the answer is I don’t know that anybody has had that contact. But look, I mean, Zapatero is a private citizen; he can travel where he wants and so on. I think we’ve had productive conversations with the Government of Spain about the whole problem of Venezuela and how to approach it and so on. We don’t always agree, but we have – they are one of our many international partners.

I mean, I would observe – take a look back at the reaction to this electoral farce that occurred on December 6. You had statements from the EU, from EU governments, from governments throughout the region – I think 51 countries put out statements saying that they don’t recognize those fake elections as having any legitimacy or really even being elections. They were a farce organized by the regime. So I think that’s what speaks more loudly than the presence of a former president, individual.

MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Ambassador Kozak, do you have anything final you wanted to share?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: No, I just would thank all of you again and say keep tuned in on this space. To me, the most notable thing that we were describing here is the fact that I – in all the years that I’ve been dealing with the Cubans, I cannot think of another case where they have negotiated with demonstrators. So even the fact that they did that temporarily is a significant development in Cuban society, and hopefully there will be more and the negotiations will be more good-faith than these turned out to be. But that’s – that’s what we want to see, is the Cuban Government coming to terms with its own people and letting them chart or at least have a big role in charting the future of their own country, and we can all hope that that comes to pass sooner rather than later.

Thanks, all, again and have a good rest of the week.

MR BROWN: Thank you, sir, and thanks to those who joined. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great afternoon.

* This article was originally published here

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