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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action


Robert Wood
Acting Assistant Secretary
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 27, 2009


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Index for Today's Briefing
  • CUBA
    • A/S Thomas Shannon will Meet with the Head of Cuba Interests Section / Last Meeting was April 13, 2009
    • Overall U.S. Policy is to Improve Political Situation for the Cuban People
  • SWINE FLU
    • U.S. Embassy in Mexico Issued Warden Message on April 25
    • Limiting of Consular Services at U.S. Embassy Mexico City for April 27- 30
    • CDC Has the Lead in terms of USG Response
    • Coordinating with Mexico, Canada, WHO and Pan-American Health Organization
    • Mexican Government Understands U.S. Must Look Out For the Best Interests of Our Citizens
    • No Official Travel Advisory Issued by the European Union/Only a Personal Opinion
  • SRI LANKA
    • U.S. Remain Very Concern about Humanitarian Situation in Conflict Area
  • DEPARTMENT
    • Ambassador Blake Nomination for Assistant Secretary of South Asia
    • Ambassador Dennis Ross Travel/No Updates
  • LEBANON
    • U.S. Wants to See Free Elections/A Lebanese Government with Moderate Views
  • MIDDLE EAST
    • Policy Has Not Changed Towards Hamas/Secretary Clinton Made Clear in
  • IRAN
    • U.S. Wants to See Iran Play a Positive Role in Middle East Peace
  • PAKISTAN
    • U.S. Calling for Pakistani Government to taking Decisive Actions Against Extremists
    • U.S. Will Work with Other Countries to Combat Extremism


TRANSCRIPT:



1:07 p.m. EDT

MR. WOOD: Okay, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the briefing. Happy Monday. I don’t have anything, so we can go right to your questions.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Cuba and the meeting today with the Cuban representative? And could you give a little detail on how often this happens, who initiates it, and what the purpose is?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, Bob, over the years we have had periodic contact with representatives of the Cuban Interests Section. And this afternoon, Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon is going to meet with the head of the Cuba Interests Section for a meeting at a mutually convenient location. I think the last time they met was April 13 here at the State Department building.

QUESTION: This year?

MR. WOOD: Yes. I believe --

QUESTION: At what level?

MR. WOOD: This was, I think, Assistant Secretary Shannon and the head of the Cuban Interests Section. And so these meetings happen periodically, and as I said, there’s going to be one tonight.

QUESTION: Should it be seen as an effort by the Administration to expand communication with the Cubans in the – as a follow-up to the actions the President has taken?

MR. WOOD: As I said, this is one of, you know, a number of meetings that have taken place, you know, over the years with representatives of the Cuban Interests Section. So I’m not trying to make more or less of it. I’m just, you know, giving you the facts as they are.

QUESTION: So it’s not an expansion of communication as a part of a plan to --

MR. WOOD: Well, I think, the President has spoken and has, as you know, made it easier for, you know, Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba and has also taken action on remittances. So those are steps that the President has taken to further engage the Cuban people. And we will have to see what else comes in the future. But an important thing is is that we have some very serious concerns about the lack of democracy in Cuba, and we want to see steps taken to improve the situation there. But I don’t have anything more than what I’ve just outlined in terms of --

QUESTION: And just one more follow-up. Sorry. Is it still the Administration’s position that you would not take additional steps beyond those the President recently announced until the Cubans reciprocate in some form?

MR. WOOD: Well, we want to see the Cuban Government reciprocate. We’d like to see a release of political prisoners. There are host of steps that the Cuban Government can take and we’d like to see. I’m not going to put conditionality on things. But clearly, you know, there are some steps that the Cuban Government needs to do with regard to its own people, allowing the Cuban people to have some of the freedoms that are enjoyed in other countries in the hemisphere.

So, yes.

QUESTION: So are you – in this particular meeting today, are you going with a list of just – a list of things that you think they need to do before you can go further than the President went?

MR. WOOD: Well, they’re going to have a meeting. Again, as I said, representatives from the State Department have had discussions with representatives of the Cuban Interests Section before to follow up on issues. I’m sure that in the course of the conversation that Assistant Secretary Shannon has with the head of the Cuban Interests Section, they’ll touch on some of the issues of concern that we have. But I’m not going to get – there’s no list prepared that we’re going into the meeting with. We have concerns about Cuban policies. We’ll be raising them. You know, I’m sure that there will be a discussion of the President’s steps that he announced recently. But beyond that, I don’t have much of an agenda.

QUESTION: But are you looking for a more definitive explanation or response from the Cuban Government over the President’s, you know, overtures? Is that what you’re looking for?

MR. WOOD: No. I think what we’re looking for – again, our overall policy objective is to improve the political situation in Cuba for the Cuban people. And the steps the President took recently are in line with that policy: to try to promote more democracy in Cuba. And that’s going to be the nexus of our policy going forward. We’re certainly willing to engage, but there need to be reciprocal steps. And these are not – okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: No, go on.

MR. WOOD: No, no.

QUESTION: No, no. (Laughter.) You were just getting to the good part, so please go on.

MR. WOOD: All you want is the good part? No, you go ahead and finish.

QUESTION: On the reciprocal steps --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, what was --

QUESTION: On the reciprocal steps, what are you hoping? Are you laying out sort of a timetable of the kind of steps --

MR. WOOD: We’re not laying out a timetable or anything like that at this point. What we’d like to see are some steps to give the Cuban people some of the freedoms that are enjoyed by other peoples in the hemisphere, as I just mentioned in response to Bob’s question. So we’ll just have to see how the Cuban Government decides to respond.

QUESTION: And where are they meeting? You said it’s a mutually agreeable place or whatever? Where is it? Is this in a restaurant, a meeting --

MR. WOOD: A mutually convenient location.

QUESTION: Is it in a restaurant, under a cherry blossom tree? I mean, where is it? (Laughter.)

MR. WOOD: At a mutually convenient location.

Yes.

QUESTION: Robert, I’m trying to get a better sense of the frequency of these meetings. You said that the last one was April 13th. I don’t think it would be fair to assume that these happen every two or three weeks. Could you give us a sense if this is – how frequently, you know, these happen, especially before this – the recent overtures from the Administration?

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, they’ve happened over time. They’re more – they’re basically driven by issues and our interests. I don’t have a – you know, I can’t give you a schedule of when these meetings took place. I gave you the most recent. But they happen when we have issues that we need to raise with the Cuban Government and if, you know, the Interests Section has some issues that they need to raise with us. But there’s no pattern here. It’s when we feel it’s appropriate or they request a meeting when they happen.

QUESTION: Well, was the April 13 meeting the first one during the Obama Administration?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I can’t rule that out. I’m not sure. I mean, we have lots of --

STAFF: Yes, it was.

MR. WOOD: Oh, it was? Okay, it was the first.

QUESTION: What was the answer?

MR. WOOD: Yes, that was the first meeting during the Obama Administration with representatives of the Cuban Interests --

QUESTION: And that was requested by which side?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have those details.

QUESTION: And then do you have any sort of sense of the frequency under the previous administration?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have that.

QUESTION: Can we switch and talk about Mexico, please?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Could you straighten out for us what’s happening with the advisories, where the State Department stands on travel for Americans?

MR. WOOD: Well, yeah, let --

QUESTION: And also what the Embassy is doing vis-a-vis official Americans there?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, well, as I think you all know, on April 25, the Embassy issued a Warden Message. And the Embassy has suspended processing of non-immigrant visas – and I think this is for the period April 27 through 29 – also, suspended services to U.S. citizens, and they’ll basically be limited to citizenship requests and other types of emergency assistance.

Right now, the Centers for Disease Control have the lead here in terms of the U.S. Government’s response. We are consulting with the governments of Mexico, Canada. We’re also having conversations with the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization. And we will, you know, be prepared to, you know, take further measures should they be necessary. And that’s pretty much where we are at the moment, and we’re following it very closely, obviously. And that’s what I have right now.

QUESTION: I have just one little follow-up.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: No action so far with official Americans or their dependents living and working either at the Embassy or in the many – any one of the five consulates?

MR. WOOD: At this point, no, Charlie. What we have is basically what is in that Warden Announcement. But again, as I said, we’re prepared to take additional measures should they be necessary.

QUESTION: What’s the range of those actions? What is the range of those actions?

MR. WOOD: Oh, I’m not going to talk about them right now, but we’re certainly prepared to issue a travel alert or a warning should that be necessary. And then there will be things that flow from those. But I don’t want to get ahead of the process here. We’re not at that stage yet. And we’ll certainly let you know if we have to indeed move to that stage.

Charley.

QUESTION: Still back to travel. Can you tell us how you balance your decision with the interests and possibly the desires of the Mexican Government not to cut off the influx of people and trade into Mexico?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. I mean, it’s a good question, Charley. You have to find that careful balance. And we’ve had, as I said, discussions with the Government of Mexico. We’re continuing to have these discussions as we go forward. But you have to take into account what’s in the best interests of Americans traveling to Mexico. The Mexican Government understands that. It’s taken steps on its own to deal with this outbreak. And we will continue to cooperate closely with them, because it does have an impact on, you know, cross-border activity. And so – and we’ll continue to do that.

Yes, Bob.

QUESTION: In a similar vein, does the State Department have a view on whether the European Union’s travel advisory for people coming to the U.S. is unwarranted?

MR. WOOD: Well, my understanding, Bob, is that there has not been any official travel advisory or warning issued by the European Union with regard to travel to the United States. So I’m --

QUESTION: There was a recommendation saying not to visit the U.S. Is --

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that there was some sort of a personal recommendation from one EU commissioner, but that indeed is not the policy of the EU.

QUESTION: Is there a reaction to that, though?

MR. WOOD: Someone’s personal reaction?

QUESTION: A reaction on the part of the State Department to that view?

MR. WOOD: To the personal view? People are entitled to their personal views. What’s important to us is what’s the official views of the European Union.

QUESTION: Well, he is – he is the EU health commissioner. This person – his personal opinion is --

MR. WOOD: Well, again, until – personal opinions are what they are, personal opinions. As I said, what’s important is what the official policy of the EU is. And at this point, we have not received any official notification from the EU of any kind of a change in policy.

Yes.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said today that you were taking it very seriously, this threat of swine flu.

MR. WOOD: Obviously.

QUESTION: And she urged caution in travel to Mexico. Does that mean you’re – is she saying caution in terms of you should postpone all nonessential travel? Is that what --

MR. WOOD: No, I think what she was saying is people need to be cautious in terms of their movements and – like avoiding large gatherings at this point in Mexico, taking, you know, normal precautions, but not with regard to travel to Mexico at this point. Again, there are a lot of conversations, telephone calls and other things going on today with regard to this outbreak. And should we have to take additional steps, we will. But we will do that based on the advice of, you know, the authorities like the CDC and the World Health Organization, and go from there. But this is where we are at the moment in terms of steps we are taking. And look, again, we’ll – the door is open and we’ll have to see how things develop as the day – and the days go by.

QUESTION: So the CDC would issue the Travel Warning or alert, and then you would put it up on your website. That would be the usual --

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: When it comes to health, they have the lead, right?

MR. WOOD: Yes. Certainly, with regard to this crisis, they do have the lead. But, you know, again, as I said, if we need to make additional information available, we will do so. So I would advise you to stay tuned on this.

QUESTION: So currently, the sort of – the current state of play is the previous – wasn’t it an advisory?

MR. WOOD: It was a Warden Message.

QUESTION: A Warden Message?

MR. WOOD: To the American community in Mexico.

QUESTION: And when was that?

MR. WOOD: That was issued April 25, Saturday.

QUESTION: New topic?

QUESTION: Just one – just a quick --

MR. WOOD: Still on this topic?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. WOOD: Okay, go ahead, Charley, and then we’ll go --

QUESTION: But just in a general way, Robert, isn’t there – isn’t there a concern that the gates may slam down and borders be closed prematurely, and that that could have pretty devastating economic impacts?

MR. WOOD: Well, Charley, nothing’s happened in that regard. What we want to do is – we don’t want people to panic at this point. We’re taking all the appropriate steps that we feel need to be taken right now. We are, obviously, updating information. We’re receiving updated information. We’re having conversations with the appropriate institutions. And should there be a need to take additional steps, we will do so. But at this point, we’re not there yet. And I think we shouldn’t leap ahead. Let’s see the outcome of these conversations and meetings today and then we’ll go forward from there.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: The CDC has a press conference right now, and I believe they have just issued a travel advisory for nonessential travel. Would you be – I mean, I know this just broke, but would you have any --

MR. WOOD: Well, why ask the question if it just broke? I haven’t seen it, so --

QUESTION: Well, it just – it took place. Are you willing to follow their lead (inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: As I said a few times here, we’re having discussions with the CDC and others. We will be updating information as appropriate. I haven’t seen this, so I’m not able to further comment beyond that.

Sir.

QUESTION: The president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, told – he stated to foreign journalists that he believes Usama bin Ladin is dead. What did the State Department – is he dead or alive?

MR. WOOD: Look, I have no information that indicates that Usama bin Ladin is, you know, frankly, dead or alive. I just – we don’t know. We will continue to hunt Usama bin Ladin until we can capture him or bring justice to him. But I don’t have anything on that.

QUESTION: And on Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Government has announced that they have ended the combat operations. What’s the U.S. view?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, well, we’re very encouraged by the government’s statement that it’s ending combat operations and use of heavy, you know, weaponry, and also the LTTE statement over the weekend that it was going to cease offensive military operations. We urge both sides to abide by these commitments.

We remain very concerned about the humanitarian situation in the conflict area. And it’s important that humanitarian organizations have access so that we can provide the, you know, health, medical care, and assistance that the people require. But that’s our initial response to those announcements.

QUESTION: And one question.

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Ambassador Robert Blake has been nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, so what happens to central Asia? I mean, both are part of it.

MR. WOOD: I know about the announcement. I have to --

QUESTION: Yeah, the statement mention only about South Asia. Central Asia was missing from that.

MR. WOOD: I’ll take a look and see what – if there’s some discrepancy, I’ll take a look at that.

Dave.

QUESTION: Yeah, there’s a report out there that Dennis Ross is going to the Gulf region later this week to talk to countries there about outreach with Iran. Can you talk about that?

MR. WOOD: Well, my understanding is that Dennis Ross will be traveling, but I don’t have – we don’t have an itinerary yet. As soon as we do have something to say further about it, we will.

QUESTION: Well, what is the purpose of it, though, I mean, politically?

MR. WOOD: Well, when we have something to announce, we’ll get it out to you.

QUESTION: But does he plan to meet any Iranians along the way? Is he going to --

MR. WOOD: When we have some more information, I’ll be happy to give it to you. But I don’t have anything at this point.

QUESTION: But is that one of the things that he’d like to do? I mean, is that what the State Department – he’s a high-level guy. Are you interested in him having – sitting down with the Iranians now to talk or --

MR. WOOD: We’re not there yet.

QUESTION: On Lebanon, just looking ahead to elections after the Secretary’s trip, are you making any contingency plans in case Hezbollah wins a majority? For example, reviewing military aid to the government and --

MR. WOOD: I think the Secretary spoke to this very clearly when she was in Beirut. I mean, we obviously want to see free elections. We’re going to support the Lebanese Government. We certainly want to see, you know, a government that has moderate views in place. We’ve made that very clear. What’s important here is that there not be interference in Lebanese internal affairs. We want to make sure that everyone supports a free election in Lebanon and, as an overall goal, a free, democratic, prosperous Lebanon. And that’s going to be our policy going forward.

You know, we’ll just have to see what happens after the election. But as I said, I think the Secretary was very clear in terms of where we stand with regard to Lebanon and the upcoming election.

QUESTION: Just to go back to the Mexico issue. It seems that the numbers are climbing quite rapidly in the United States. During SARS, if my memory serves me correctly, people were actually stopped leaving those countries, especially if they showed any sign of sickness. Are you giving any reassurances to other governments that the U.S. will take similar actions and prevent ill-looking Americans from leaving the country?

MR. WOOD: Well, Sue, look, we’re going to take the steps that we feel are prudent and important. I don’t want to get ahead of where we are at this moment. But we’re going to do what we believe is in the best interests of American citizens and those traveling to the United States and abroad. But I don’t have anything more to give you on that.

QUESTION: Are you – is that something you’re looking into, though? Have you received requests from other foreign governments?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of at this point. But again, as the CDC has the lead on a number of these issues, we’ll be consulting with them. And should it be necessary, we’ll consult with other governments. But I just want to stress that we’re not at that point yet.

Yes.

QUESTION: The Administration is asking for the Congress to make some changes in U.S. law that would allow aids to continue flowing to Palestinian, even if Hamas become part of the – of a new government. This move has alarmed a number of lawmakers and supporters of Israel. How the Administration will deal with this opposition in the Congress? And are we seeing a real shift in the U.S. policy toward Hamas?

MR. WOOD: Our policy has not changed toward Hamas. And I really don’t have anything to add. The Secretary spoke to this very clearly in her testimony. We will be having conversations with the Congress about this question. But I really don’t have anything beyond what the Secretary said, and she, I think, was very clear in terms of what our position is.

Sir.

QUESTION: Back to Iran. President Ahmadinejad, he made remarks yesterday – we heard they were broadcast yesterday – which appeared to say that if the Palestinians were to accept a two-state solution, that Iran would abide by that. Do you see this as an encouraging sign, or do you see this as a shift in policy on the part of Iran?

MR. WOOD: You’ll have to ask Iran. What we want to do is – what we want to see is Iran play a positive role in the region, which up until now it hasn’t. And a two-state solution, as you know, is what – the policy that we’re pursuing in the Middle East. And, you know, if Iran wants to show goodwill, it should encourage those forces that it supports that are opposed to a two-state solution to cease their opposition and work constructively toward helping us reach that two-state solution.

Charley.

QUESTION: Different topic. Based on the Secretary’s comments last week about Pakistan, do you have any reaction about the latest military action in Pakistan against the forces of the Taliban and extremists (inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have any reaction beyond what the Secretary and others have been calling for, and that’s for the Pakistani Government and military to take very decisive actions against these extremists. And we will be doing what we can to support the Government of Pakistan as it continues to fight extremism in the country.

But I – Charley, I don’t have anything beyond what we – you know, what we’ve been saying.

QUESTION: So do you think that the message was received that the Secretary so forcefully made public?

MR. WOOD: I think Pakistan understands the threat that it faces internally, and it’s got to take steps to deal with it. And we’ve been very clear on what we think Pakistan needs to do, and we’re going – as I said, we’re going to work with Pakistan, and not just Pakistan, but Afghanistan and other areas where these violent extremists are operating and trying to undermine fragile democracies. So whether it was the Secretary who influenced them or they just decided within their own national security interest to do so, I can’t tell you. The important thing is that they need to act further because these extremists are a threat to Pakistan as well as to the region.

Yes.

QUESTION: Sorry, one more thing, just to go back to the Mexico stuff. There used to be an avian flu unit within State. Is that still operating, and are you now going to have a swine flu unit?

MR. WOOD: I don’t – that’s a good question. I’ll take a look and see if that unit is still operating.

QUESTION: Because their number has been disconnected.

MR. WOOD: Oh, then maybe they’re not operating.

QUESTION: A hint to me that they might not be.

MR. WOOD: That might be a good hint, but let me look into it for you.

Okay, thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:29 p.m.)

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