THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
February 26, 1996
The Briefing Room
4:12 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. I'm not going to take much time from here because I'll wait for your questions in a moment. But let me just say a few words about the international efforts that we are making with considerable success to get international support for worldwide reaction to condemn what the Cubans have done.
We're really very encouraged after a couple of days that around the world many countries are expressing to us bilaterally and in international settings their outrage at what the Cuban government did on Saturday; and the fact that it's recognized, I think, throughout the world that this was, as the President said a moment ago, a flagrant violation of international law. Secretary Christopher, who is El Salvador, not only meeting with the government of El Salvador but with representatives of several of the Central American governments, is finding that sentiment in his meetings.
As the President indicated, the European Union just offered a very strong statement of condemnation of the Cuban action. Ambassador Albright, last night in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, again found considerable support for the proposition that the Cubans had violated international law and their behavior was outrageous and inappropriate. And Ambassador Albright is also beginning, in a preliminary fashion, discussions at the U.N. Security Council about further measures that could be taken in the form of sanctions. Those conversations have not developed to a large extent, but she is beginning those discussions in New York.
And finally, the United States is seeking condemnation of the Cuban action in the international civil aviation organization in Montreal where, again, the initial reports from this morning -- because in many of these international organizations it was not possible to have such discussions in a formal way until MOnday morning -- has indicated a good degree of support.
Now, I think I'll let my colleague talk about some of the bilateral measures that the President announced, and he will take your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Good afternoon.
The question that was raised by these incidents on Saturday is whether our relations with Cuba should change as a result of the downing of two unarmed civilian aircraft, and the answer is, absolutely, yes.
One of the things that we will be doing as Congress comes back this week is moving to make some proposals about how we could reach agreement on the Helms-Burton legislation that will further tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
As you know, the administration has said from the beginning of debate about Helms-Burton that we shared the objectives of promoting a peaceful democratic transition, but we had serious doubts about whether all the provisions of the bill were capable of addressing that goal. And we're going to move very quickly in the next two days to make clear to the Congress some specific ways in which we think we could improve the legislation. I think it's fair to say the President wants to achieve a compromise on Helms-Burton, and we'll try to find a way to do that that advances our interests.
We are also, as my colleague indicated, going to insist through international forum that Cuba both reject its position that it is entitled to shoot down aircraft, civilian aircraft, and to compensate the victims. But we're not going to wait for the Cuban government to acknowledge its responsibility. We will take the frozen assets that we have had in the United States blocked for Cuba for some time and provide a mechanism by which the families can receive compensation if they wish. We'd need legislation to do that, and so we'll make a proposal to Congress, a means to do that.
We have the ability to restrict the movement of Cuban diplomats here in the United States, and we will be moving to do that this week, to make it clear that they are restricted only to certain kinds of activities that are essential for their funcitons here. And we will also be tightening the criteria that we use for admitting employees of the Cuban government to the United States. We have provisions already in executive authority that allow us to deny entry to any employees of the Cuban government or members of the Communist party, and we will be interpreting that very strictly.
We will increase financial support for Radio Marti, which will allow the radio station, which is listened to by an important segment of the Cuban population, to reach even further into Cuba and to overcome the expensive jamming that the Cuban government engages in to try to block the signal. And we will be able to do that also relatively quickly.
And finally, probably within a matter of hours, we will be moving to suspend all commercial charter flights to Cuba. Obviously, the action that the Cuban government engaged in in shooting down unarmed aircraft does not encourage us to permit further flights to Cuba. And so we will now cut off all U.S.-based charter flights to Cuba starting, probably as I say, within a very short period of time.
Why don't we stop there and invite questions.
Q On Helms-Burton, Republicans are saying today that they don't need to compromise with the President, that they now have the votes to pass it. Would the President veto the Helms-Burton legislation in its current form?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I've just indicated that the President has said that he wants us to find a good compromise on Helms-Burton. We're going to try to do that. Senator Dole has said that that is one thing that he would like to see happen. So I would hope that on reflection members of Congress would rather have a piece of legislation that has the support and the signature of the President than something that is used for demonstration purposes and never has any possibility of becoming law.
So I hope, as the time passes and they see what we have to offer, that we'll be able to reach some sort of compromise.
Q What parts of the bill do you object to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's no secret that from the beginning of the conversations about Helms-Burton with the Congress, Title III, the title that deals with property, asserting the establishment of a right of action in the U.S. court system for those U.S. citizens who have had property expropriated in Cuba before or after they were U.S. citizens is the problem, the part of the bill that bothers us the most and the part of the bill that the Congress has always insisted on not changing. And that is, in fact, the issue on which the bill was hung up in the Senate the last time.
So I think it's fair to say that that will be a focus of concentration for both sides in trying to work out a compromise.
Q So what's the difference between before and after the shooting? If you objected to that provision then and you object to it now, what's the difference?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well I hope the difference is on the part --
Q -- object to it less?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think the difference is on the part of Congress. I would hope that Congress would want to engage in sending a message of bipartisan repudiation to Cuba and not engage in posturing with a bill that neither serves U.S. interest nor, in fact, the purpose of being tough on Cuba.
Q Is the objection to that is that it would violate extraterritoriality provisions of international law?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That it would give the Cuban government a tremendous propoganda victory; undermine precisely the international support that we have been developing over the last year, which led to the condenmantion widespread last week of the violations of human rights around the arrests of Concio Cubano; now, today, with the condemnation by the EU of the shooting down of the airplane. It's clear that the more we reduce Castro's international acceptance, the better off we are in our attempt to promote a peaceful transition.
Q On two separate occasions the United Nations has voted to urge the United States to get rid of the embargo. What makes you think that the United Nations is now going to support what the United States wants to do, and if it does, that they won't condition it to lifting the embargo against Cuba?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me make an additional comment on Helms-Burton, and then I'll get to the question. The difference in what the President has instructed us to do today is to be very forthcoming in trying to obtain passage of Helms-Burton. I think up until this point you will know that we have said there are certain parts of it we like, there are certain parts of it we don't like. But the President has given a real impetus to those in the Executive Branch dealing with the Congress on this issue to actively find a forum that is acceptable to both us and to the Congress.
On the question I just received, I think that there is a significant difference in what we can report from the conversations in New York, both with members throughout the United Nations and in the Security Council, despite the differences. And, of course, there have been differences between the United States and a majority of members of the United Nations over overall policy towards Cuba, or the techniques that the United States believe are appropriate for bringing pressure on Cuba.
Nonetheless, this example of a flagrant violation of international law by any standards is meeting with enormous sympathy and support. And for that reason we have every reason to hope and expect that the President's statement, or even a resolution that will come out of the Security Council, will not make reference to the embargo.
Q Are you also grounding the Brothers to the Rescue and their planes?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The FAA has had a long-term investigation under way, not only against Mr. Basulto, but other pilots, Brothers to the Rescue. In fact, their cases are under appeal, and we have underway a review by FAA of what further actions should be taken as a result of the clear safety threat that's represented by this unlawful action of the Cuban government on Saturday.
So we anticipate that there will be further action, but I can't be more specific today.
Q So the edict on the commercial traffic doesn't have anything to do with the light plane --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that's on commercial charter flights. That's right. This would be --
Q This action has been going on by these Cuban emigres since '91 -- about 3,000 trips. Each one of these tried to evoke us into war. Are you going to let that continue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as a nation of laws, we have great difficulty in restraining people from breaking the law, just because they -- ma'am, would you like me to answer your question?
Q Yes, I would.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have great difficulty in exercising prior restraint against people for what we think they might do. I'm sure you would like us to keep that a part of our constitutional system. That means we have to proceed lawfully and carefully against people, and it's difficult when people want to violate the law. In fact, just because we would say that people can't take off airplanes legally doesn't mean they can't violate it. But we will be doing things that we think will have the result of lowering the risk for U.S. aircraft in this area.
Q On that point, does the U.S. regard the pilots and crew of those two airplanes as totally innocent victims?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There is no justification under international law for shooting down an unarmed civilian aircraft. It doesn't matter where it is. It's the nature of the aircraft and what it is doing. And this is a clear violation of international law. There is no justification.
Q Even if the crews ignored a specific radio transmission warning them to stay out of a certain area?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. Cuba has no right to shoot down civilian, unarmed aircraft.
Q What is the amount of money in frozen Cuban assets in the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's something around $100 million.
Q And how much compensation could these families be likely to expect based on actuarial settlements or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's exactly what you said. It's an actuarial problem that when one looks at the life expectancy of these people -- I don't want to get into the grim details of people who have lost their lives and their families are grieving right now. The point of this is not compensation to the families. The point of this is that this is Cuban government money that will never go to Cuba. It is never going to be seen by the Cuban government.
Q To what extent -- how does the suspension of the charter flights --
Q Can you talk to us a little bit about how many people have been going since October on charter flights? Can you tell us whether or not Cuban families -- Cuban family members can still go back automatically once a year whether academics; whether other researchers, human rights activitists can go just by going now through Mexico or through Canada? Or are they going to have to now apply to the Treasury Department again and have a specific license? What does this do for travel to Cuba?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first, journalists' licenses will continue, but you won't be flying from Miami any longer. The point of the stopping of the charter flights is specifically to the violation of international law committed by the Cuban government in the shooting down of the planes. We don't want U.S. planes flying into Cuba.
But we had a clear discussion and examination of the kinds of pressure that our so-called "track two" program has been putting on the Cuban government domestically. And it was the feeling of all of the advisors of the President and, ultimately, the President himself that in fact we have the Cuban government on the defensive. Some of these outrageous acts against Concilio are a demonstration that what we are doing is working, and we will continue that.
But, frankly, I would hope that Cuban Americans and many others who are concerned about Cuba would question whether they should be flying into Cuba from any place in the world right now.
Q How many people have gone since October on these charter flights? How much loss of revenue does this mean, and does this mean that as a Cuban American or human rights person or an academic, all you have to do now is just go to a third country to get to Cuba? And will you automatically have a license from the Treasury Department to travel?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there are no automatic licenses, except for U.S. government officials and the once-a-year humanitarian license that exists for Cuban American families. There have been increases in the charter flights from Miami, as those of you who have followed this are witness to. We aren't sure how much of it was due to a backlog that we had of many people who had applied for licenses and had not been able to receive them, how much it is people who used to go illegally without asking for a license from third countries and now all of a sudden are showing up in Miami where there was more access.
It is always difficult to enforce an embargo if people won't comply with it, particularly the Cuban-American community itself. And that's why we hope there will be voluntary compliance by Cuban Americans with this provision. But the basic licensing structure that was put in place on October 6th still exists. We believe that the program of support for the Cuban people is, in fact, having important effects inside Cuba. We are not going to abandon the human rights groups and dissidents and other independent groups that have, in fact, developed in response to this greater contact with the people of the United States.
Q How many flights does this affect?
Q -- will see more refugees coming? Have you gamed out that scenario, as to what would happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to get into future plans either about migration or military issues. But we're always thinking about the worst that could happen, as well as hoping for the best.
Q Could you be a little more specific about numbers, sir?
Q How many flights, how many people have been going since October?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'd be happy -- we could try to get that information for you, but I don't have the total number since October. There are about 120,000 to 140,000 people that travel from the United States to Cuba in a given year. I think that's probably for '95, in fact. This is not a huge number of people. It's significant, but not huge.
And how much of that has been since October, I can't say. There was an ariticle in the Miami Herald that perhaps my colleague would be happy to give you copies of that has more specific figures than I had ever seen.
Q Can I ask you a question, though, about --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Since I gave you a plug at least.
Q I appreciate that. The pro-engagement policy on track two that remains intact. The United States continues to seek people-to-people contact to build --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. There's no question that this outrageous action by the Cuban government on Saturday and a parallel action against the Cuban people on the island rounding up dissidents puts a chill in the overall relationship -- and should. But we continue to believe that we have to reach out to the Cuban people around their government, espcially when it demonstrates more and more to the international community its illegal and unethical actions with regard to human life.
Q The Cuban American delegation, a visit to the White House, what is their opinion of the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm sure that they'll provide their views directly to you. They've never been shy about expressing themselves. (Laughter.)
Q Well, what --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I had a brief meeting upstairs with people, and I'm going to see a larger group of Cuban Americans at the State Department in an hour or so. And I'd rather reserve comment until I receive the full weight of their views.
Q What do you know about this --
Q -- restrictions actually punishes more the people than the Cuban government?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that's a basic problem that we face in dealing with Cuba -- that you have a government that's willing to hold 11 million people hostage in defense of its own behavior. And so we believe, and I think the President expressed himself very clearly, that he wanted these measures focused as tightly as possible on the Cuban government.
And I think if you look at these measures you will see that they are significant and that they do just that -- they hit the Cuban government more than the Cuban people, which we think is important.
Q Were there charter flights allowed from Miami before October, so is this a narrow -- in the narrow sense, a roll-back of that October easing, or was that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there were charter flights, there have been charter flights allowed for a long time between the United States and Cuba. The number of people who were licensed to use them was quite restricted -- yourselves, journalists, yourselves, government officials, academic researchers -- a relatively small number of people.
In October, a larger number of -- a larger group of categories was permitted, as well as this once-per-year exemption for Cuban-American families with emergencies. So the authorization of charter flights has existed for quite some time. That now stops totally. Whether there's demand or not, there are no charter flights indefinitely from Miami or any other place.
Q How does that affect Cuba's pocketbook?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In the short term, it should have a dramatic impact. It should reduce revenues to the Cuban government significantly, especially if those people who cannot fly from Miami decide to voluntarily exercise restraint and not go to Cuba. It could send a very important message.
Q You seem to be using "commercial" and "charter" interchangeably. What you really mean is a charter flight.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Commercial charter flight, yes.
Q And how much money is the President asking for Radio Marti?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'd rather not give you a specific number. It's not -- we're talking about millions, a couple of million dollars per year. We're not talking about tens of millions of dollars per year.
Q And what's that supposed to accomplish, specifically?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Radio Marti is -- if you have gone to Cuba -- I can't remember if you have -- you know, if you ask people, a lot of people get their main source of news from Radio Marti. In fact, that's the way they heard about the incident on Saturday. It took a long time for the Cuban government to say anything about it publicly.
Cuba engages in jamming, more and more expensive jamming all the time. And this increased power and widening the band width allows the signal to reach more parts of the island for more hours during the day than before. It provides information. It provides support for on-island groups. It provides information about how to start your own business, how to be -- have an independent lawyers' group. There's lots of information that's provided by Radio Marti that's very important for democracy promotion.
Q Specifically, the money will be used to increase power and widen the band?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's right.
Q But you're still allowing the money transfers and telephone service -- money transfers, telephone service, communications?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me be clear about that. Money transfers is different from everything else you've mentioned. The only reason for which anyone in the United States can send remittances to Cuba is to pay visa fees or for humanitarian exemption. If you know anyone who is sending money to Cuba, not in one of those two categories, with a prior license, please call the Treasury Department and report them. They're violating the law.
For the rest of track two, for contact -- people-to-people contact, for yourselves, for journalists, for academic researchers and so on, you will still be able to obtain a license to go to Cuba as you were after October 6th.
Q What sanctions do you want the Security Council to pass?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are two actions that Ambassador Albright is pursuing -- Security Council. As I mentioned, the first, which she initiated last night, was to get a statement by the President of the Security Council expressing the unanimous view of the 15 members that a flagrant violation of international law has occurred.
Subsequent to that, she will begin discussions with the members of the Security Council about a broader sanction regime. And without giving specifics, because we have not made any firm decisions. We'll be looking at sanctions which are appropriate to the lawless act of the Cuban government affecting Cuban airlines, travel by air in and around Cuba. Those are the kinds of categories of sanctions --
Q Restricting Cuban aviation internationally?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those are the kinds of categories that we'll be looking at on the sanctions front.
Q -- diplomatic relations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One at a time, please.
Q Are the Russians being helpful or unhelpful in this --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only conversation with the full counsel took place last night, because the business meeting which was scheduled today is proceeding on other grounds. But I can say that all of the members of the Security Council, including, of course, the Russians, were very concerned at the obvious serious breach in international law; that was very much of the spirit of the discussion last night that Ambassador Albright reported.
Q Excuse me. Why aren't you going to the OAS among the other --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because we think that the Security Council is a higher-profile organization and we're looking for condemnation not only within the hemisphere, but throughout the world, and that's why the Security Council is the first focus for this.
Q What sort of warning, if any, did we get from the Cuban Interest Section here about the probability or possibility, specifically, that something could have occurred on this particular date, that based on Cuban somehow, you know, knowledge or infiltration of their Brothers to the Rescue that they had any indication that there might be provocative flights on that day?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they want to amplify this, because he, of course, follows the cable traffic, too, that we all look at. For some time, the Cuban government, of course, has expressed its concern about flights which they regarded as violations of their territory; whether or not these flights took place, whether or not the flights were in every case as alleged by the Cubans' actual violations.
What we have done constantly since these flights began some time ago is to say two things: First of all, that there's a legal action that the United States is pursuing, and that's what my colleague and others have talked about. We are a country of laws; it's much more complicated to pursue people by virtue of their intentions in this country compared to Cuba. But the United States takes these potential violations of international law very seriously. And, second point, that the Cubans have to be mindful of the fact that there is international law that applies to the way they handle these flights if they choose to react, and we counseled restraint and we pointed out very forcefully over a period of many months what we believe their obligations to be.
Q Did they give us any warning of an anticipation of an attack of a flight on this particular day?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was, to my knowledge, no specific warning except that they have been constantly on alert because flights of this sort have been coming for some time, as you know.
Q Did the government warn the Cubans that there was a flight imminent on this day?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the -- it depends on what you mean by warning. I think you have seen reports that the FAA files a flight plan routinely that it receives for all aircraft, not just small private aircraft that fly in the vicinity of Cuba, and prior flotillas that had had some air overflight associated with them that were announced in advance and publicized in great detail. We had made specific public warnings, both to those participating in the flotilla and to the Cuban government to exercise restraint, not violate international law. But nothing like that second thing occurred on Saturday.
Q The Cuban government this afternoon said that they have now picked up debris in their territorial waters from these two planes, and challenge the United States to come up with any debris in international waters. The President, when he made a statement, again talked about these planes having been downed over international airspace. How do you reconcile these two things?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One side is right and the other side is wrong. That's how I reconcile them. We're right and the Cuban government is wrong, and we will be happy to present this information to any international forum so that they can make their own evaluation.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think we did present a briefing last night to the Security Council of everything that we had. And as my colleague indicated, if other international organizations or the Cuban government, for that matter, wants to be informed in whatever detail they desire about the information we have, we're prepared to present it there, as well.
Q What about the renegade pilot that they say they have?
Q Have you made all this information public, or is there further documentation on it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I mean, basically, the background briefing that occurred -- what was it, Saturday -- Saturday --
Q Does that include photos?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are various electronic reading of what took place. But, essentially, yes, we have made this all available.
Q Were these same planes warned in the morning not to -- and went back in the afternoon? Has that been acknowledged?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are aware of the Cuban government assertion that there were planes in this area earlier in the day. We have no information to indicate that that is the case. But I can't get into much more detail about it than that.
Q What about the pilot that they say they've now got from Brothers to the Rescue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we eagerly anticipate his information, and we suspect it will not be -- it will be supportive to the Cuban government's case. Let me just respond that way.
Q Well, do you have information that Brothers to the Rescue has a missing pilot other than from the downed flights?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have any -- there are no missing pilots, there was no one picked up in the water, there was no one who landed in Cuba on Saturday that we aren't aware about. But we are aware that there may be a member of Brothers to the Rescue -- a former member of Brothers to the Rescue in Cuba at this time.
Q A defecter? He defected?
Q How do you think this will impact the immigration accord in that if we accuse this of being a government that has no regard for the rule of law and at the same time send refugees who are fleeing that country back to that country?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we expect that it will have no effect on the Cuban government's fulfillment of the immigration agreement. It's something that is working in the interest of both countries. That's why we monitor returned refugees, returned rafters ourselves directly, because we do not trust in the behavior of the Cuban government and we have had a small number of problems with people who have been returned as a result of this policy. But by and large, it's worked to save lives and protect immigration flows in a safe and orderly fashion.
Q Why did the Clinton administration rule out a military response at this point? Was it seriously discussed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There were all options examined by the President's advisor and by the President. And I think the phrase you used, "at this time," is what was indicated in the President's statement, that he felt that this package of measures that he announced today was an appropriate response, but we continue to watch the situation.
Q Does this incident render the administration's Cuba policy a failure?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, despite what -- I think I saw you at 7:00 this morning say that a senior official had said that. The United States is receiving more support internationally for its policy from other governments, as the journalists here are quick to point out -- a rarity in U.S.-Cuba policy. We've seen the development on the island for the first time in 30 years of an umbrella organization of all human rights groups, including those who support Helms-Burton and oppose Helms-Burton; and an equally amazing phenomenon, the development in Miami and New Jersey of widespread support group for those on island activities.
I think that the regime in Cuba is acting desperate, precisely becuase it doesn't know how to cope with a policy that emphasizes peaceful, democratic transition, support for independent actors on the island, and has made it clear that we want to see a peaceful transition on Cuba -- apparently a transitoin that the Cuban government has no interest in.
END 4:32 P.M. EST