"We're doing everything we can here to support the Cuban people," although "the list of challenges is long," said the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a telephone interview with DIARIO DE CUBA in which he highlighted the advantages that an improvement in relations between Havana and Washington would bring to the island, while warning that this would only be possible if the regime "renounces its oppressive behavior."
Mr. Secretary of State, in July 2018 you asked Havana to establish a dialogue on human rights in Cuba. What aspects about the current state of human rights in Cuba concern you most right now, and what would you say to Cubans about it?
So, Pablo, the reality is, that we’re doing everything we can here to support the Cuban people, including their human rights. And you see this, right. You see with [journalist] Roberto Quinones and his recent detention. You see the way that – we had a religious freedom ministerial, there were pastors coming here to Washington to attend, just to talk about this basic human right, and the Cuban government wouldn’t permit them to travel here.
So the list of challenges is long. We know the story of the Ladies in White, right. This is a government that has denied these most basic freedoms to the Cuban people. And so our work has been to raise the cost for this behavior from the Cuban regime, to work to convince them, and to make them pay a price for this bad behavior. I would urge the Cuban people to continue to stand up for their freedoms, to continue to demand these basic rights to worship and express their conscience. This is something that is central to every nation in the world, and the Cuban people deserve these rights just as much as any other human being.
Your Government has applied Title Three of the Helms-Burton Act, sanctioned companies and restricted the travel of your citizens to Cuba. In addition, it is trying to prevent the arrival of Venezuelan oil to the island. What would be the next steps in terms of its policy towards Havana?
Pablo, I don't want to get out in front of actions that we may take, but your description of our efforts I think is about right. I've heard stories from the Cuban regime that says that these actions are responsible for the difficult economy in Cuba, but the truth is, as you well know, Cuba is responsible for – the Cuban leadership is responsible for the failing economy. I was reading just the other day that there's an index of freedom, and Cuba is 178th out of 180, freer only than Venezuela and the DPRK. This kind of state-controlled government fails to deliver on behalf of the citizens anyplace it is practiced, and that's certainly the case in Cuba today. And so please make sure the Cuban people understand that this administration is determined to raise the costs for the power being used to benefit just the regime and the senior leaders in Cuba, and to enable the Cuban people to have the opportunities to build out on the enormous resources that are in that country to make life better for ordinary Cubans.
There is a bipartisan initiative that has been put forth in the U.S. Congress, backed by senators who recommend granting political asylum to Cuban medical personnel who request it in third-party countries. What is your government's position in regards to that initiative?
We're looking at it. We want to evaluate any legislation that comes forward. We've not yet seen all the details of how that's going to transpire. Our guiding principle – our guiding principle is always this when we think about our policy in Cuba and in Venezuela, and frankly in many parts of the world; our guiding principle always remains the same: Does this action that we take improve America's capacity to get a good outcome for the citizens of Cuba? Can we deliver with American authority, American power, a set of criteria that lead us to a better place so that we can have – we want a friendly partner nation there. It's going to take a government that fundamentally rethinks the way it treats its citizens and builds out its economy, and who its friends are in the world. Who really is the partner that the Cuban people want? That's the United States of America. And we want to be that partner too. But with this regime in place, it just simply can't happen.
Can you tell us what kind of interactions the U.S. government currently has with that of the Díaz-Canel government, and at what level?
So at this time we don’t have a formal set of conversations with the senior leaders inside of Cuba. We've watched – when this administration came into power, we'd been watching a U.S. Government that had tried appeasement, that had said, well, goodness gracious, let's build out the private sector in Cuba, but in fact the levels of corruption, the levels of influence, the levels of – the levels of state control are of such enormity that there have to be significant changes there.
We've watched this level of government control result in more oppression, and the appeasement that the United States engaged in only fueled that. That's true for the Cubans, it's true for the Venezuelans as well. We hope that the regime will make a different decision, but in the absence of that the United States is prepared to continue to do all that we can to grant the people of Cuba every opportunity to build out this nation in the way that I know the Cuban people want it built out.
Do you see the transfer of power in Cuba as complete, or do you think that the "old guard" still rules on essential issues, such as international policy?
Yes, with respect to their international policies, I think the [old guard] regime is still fully in control of the actions that are being taken. With respect to the future, boy, it's always hard to know. It will turn on a couple of things. It will turn on the efforts from America and others around the world applying pressure to the regime, denying them the capacity to inflict this oppression on their own people, but even more importantly, it will turn on the Cuban people's demands. Are they prepared to do everything they can to convince the regime in Cuba that you can't continue with your oppression, you can't continue with your denial of religious freedom, you can't continue to take actions that enrich you – enrich the leadership while destroying the economy for everyone else? When the Cuban people begin to redouble their efforts and the world joins in that, I have great confidence – I know that the Cuban people want freedom and a stronger economy, and the United States is committed to helping them achieve that.
President Trump declared on Twitter that, if Cuba withdraws its staff from Venezuela, its relationship with Washington could be different. He mentioned that a much better deal could be reached. Would the Trump administration consider loosening any aspects of current U.S. policy or lifting any of its sanctions on Cuba if the Cuban regime helped broker a transition in Venezuela?
Our view on Venezuela and the Cuban control of the security apparatus there has been very clear. President Trump has been unambiguous about this. Any new leader in Venezuela must get the Cubans away from the security apparatus. That connection, that link through the security team prevents the Venezuelan people from having the opportunity that they need to grow their economy and to restore democracy in their country. That is not going to happen with hundreds and thousands of Cuban security officials, intelligence officials, military officials there with this very, very tight link.
And so we've said to Cuba – the President's said it publicly – we've said to Cuba, make a decision. Make a fundamental shift that says we're no longer going to present – defend the Maduro regime that has caused so much destruction and so much hardship, so much starvation in Venezuela that now over 10 percent of their population has had to flee the country. Make that switch. Pull your people back. Come back and then we can have a real conversation. That'll be the first good sign that you, too, want that for your own people. You want a good, more robust, more free life for your own people in Cuba. You can't have that while the Cubans are assisting in the oppression of the Venezuelan people. You can't have that inside of Cuba.
And so were Cuba to make that decision, we would absolutely continue to support all the efforts that we've made, everyplace we go, to say to the Cuban people: That's important; you've now made a decision that is fundamentally different; you now want freedom too. And if the regime is prepared to deliver on that, we're prepared to consider everything.
And just to finish, though, I just said everything. I mean, just I have to say when we observe the regime's activity – when I say everything, we're willing to – we're willing to consider if the – when the regime renounces its oppressive behavior, we're willing – that's a fundamental shift in the relationship with Cuba not only with the United States but with the world. And so that's the gating issue. That's what it is we're looking for. And when that happens, good things can come.
Regarding the acoustic attacks on the United States Embassy in Havana, the University of Pennsylvania recently published a report stating that U.S. diplomats in Cuba had suffered brain damage. Has there been any progress made in the investigation? Havana says that it has been willing to cooperate, but that the U.S. has refused their help. Have you identified any suspects?
Pablo, I can't say much more about this. I am very familiar with the situation, and I am familiar with the outline of the results from the study that was released yesterday as well. We still have not been able to resolve what has caused this. We can see the pattern. You can see what the University of Penn reported from a medical – or what physically transpired.
The Cuban Government has refused to cooperate with us in any significant way to assist us in determining what the cause of this was, what generated this. We hope they’ll change their mind; we hope they’ll behave in a way that helps us do what we must do, which is to make sure that we always take care of every American, whether they’re a State Department official or a Commerce Department official or a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. The health of some of America's people was impacted by this activity and we need the Cubans to help us identify what took place.
One last question: what advantages would a normalized relationship with the United States bring to the Cuban people if there were a democratic government in Havana?
Yeah. Boy, the benefits would be almost unimaginable. The scale, the opportunity is staggering, right – it's a great place, it's got great products. Tourism could flourish inside of Cuba. There would be enormous wealth created in Cuba. It would be good for the United States too. We have products that we'd like to sell to the Cuban people. All of these things are possible.
This would mean a substantial improvement in the life of every ordinary Cuban person who longs for their freedom and the capacity to take care of their family and to educate themselves. All of those things, opening up – this opening up between our two countries would be truly transformational for Cuba. It's something that only the Cuban regime can deliver with the demands of the Cuban people at their back.