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DOS Press Briefing Exchange on Visas for Cuban Scholars

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 04101260 (posted Oct. 12, 2004)"

DOS Press Briefing Exchange on Visas for Cuban Scholars

The following is an excerpt from the 10/7/04 State Department press briefing by Richard Boucher:

"QUESTION: Okay. Academics and some members of Congress are distressed by the State Department's decision to deny visas to some 60 Cuban scholars, to describe that, to go to a conference in Vegas, and they're going to -- or probably have already begun to turn it into a protest meeting.

Considering all the way back to the Helsinki Accords, why would the Bush Administration stop Cuban academics from having a free exchange or an unfree exchange with scholars in America?

MR. BOUCHER: Well, I think that's exactly why, because of the unfree exchange. The fact is that Cuban academics are government employees and they come as government officials, and we have a policy restricting travel by Cuban government officials. We think it's not consistent with our national interest. And so, this was a group I think of 67 Cuban officials, who were intending to come to a conference, noted that the number is approximately -- I think 68 is the current number of dissidents that Cuba has thrown in jail and is persecuting in its jails, and we just felt it wasn't appropriate for this many Cuban government officials, "academics," to come to a conference to spout the party line.

QUESTION: How many? Did you decline all 67?

MR. BOUCHER: I think we declined them all as a group; the decision was made last week.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But a couple of members of Congress asked for reconsideration --

MR. BOUCHER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- in a letter to the Secretary. Evidently, they were simply turned down. I don't know if they got a reply letter.

MR. BOUCHER: I don't know if the Secretary has gotten a letter from members of Congress on the road.

QUESTION: Yeah, he's been on the road. Yeah.

MR. BOUCHER: We'll have to check on that. And I'm sure that, you know, we'll want to cooperate and explain with members of Congress, but that is the decision that was made and that that's where we stand at the present moment.

QUESTION: Well, if it's a narrow decision based on the restrictions you apply, for whatever good or bad reason, to travel by Cuban officials and you take the -- all 67 people, as Cuban officials, that's one thing. But if the State Department doesn't want them to come to Las Vegas and "spout the party line," I think it says something about the State Department's views about academic freedom and about a free exchange of ideas.

We hear party line all of the time. We've heard party line from Soviet officials, for instance, for decades until the Soviet Union disintegrated. Is it the State Department's business to evaluate what people are going to say at an academic conference that has nothing to do with the U.S. State Department?

MR. BOUCHER: It's the State Department's view that Cuban officials should not travel freely within the United States, and that Cuban officials and the Cuban regime needs to feel the pressure of our disdain for that regime, and the condemnation that we have for the way that regime treats its own people, throws them in jail, and persecutes them.

And if these people, who are employed by universities but who are effectively Cuban officials want to travel around and, you know, enjoy the hospitality of the United States or enjoy the free and open discussion here, that's one thing, but we think it's important for them to -- for the Cuban Government and the Cuban regime to know that the United States is not -- has not countenanced their activities as Cuban officials inside Cuba.

And therefore, we think one of the appropriate ways of bringing pressure on them is to deny Cuban officials the ability to travel, to deny them the right to travel around the United States and enjoy our hospitality.

QUESTION: Can you just give us the rundown -- you seemed to be, at one point, you were about to run down just the exact details on this, the decision to deny the visas --

MR. BOUCHER: No, I wasn't. I was about to promise to remember to find it for you if I needed to.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. BOUCHER: So I take the --

QUESTION: Would you make that promise?

MR. BOUCHER: So I'll take the request. I'll get you the details --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. BOUCHER: -- on when and how we turned it down.

QUESTION: Are you meaning to suggest that all Cuban academics are government officials? That sounds like what you said.

MR. BOUCHER: I think, given the nature of the system, they are.

QUESTION: Well, what would you say to -- I mean, some of the people who are in jail right now could be considered academics?

MR. BOUCHER: I mean, it's clear --

QUESTION: Could they not?

MR. BOUCHER: Well, I --

QUESTION: I mean, there's this woman, the economist, who is --

MR. BOUCHER: I don't know the exact employment of some of these people, whether they still have their government jobs or their academic jobs. But I mean, this is a large group of academics and people employed by the Cuban Government who wanted to travel as a group, and we felt it was appropriate to turn down this group.

QUESTION: So -- but you're not -- so, wait, I --

MR. BOUCHER: As far as I'm aware --

QUESTION: You're saying these 67 --

MR. BOUCHER: As far as I'm aware, none of these individuals has distinguished him or herself for free thinking and for questioning anything the regime has said.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, but they're, you know, there are academics in the United States who are what you might consider apologists for Cuba. But so I'm just trying to figure out whether -- is it just these 67 who applied, I mean, and others might apply in the future that you might consider to be government officials, or are you saying that all Cuban academics are government officials, in your view?

MR. BOUCHER: Well, we're saying what the facts are, which is the university system in Cuba is a government-employed, government-run system; and, therefore, when we look at travel by people who work for this university system, then we need to consider that they fall into the category of Cuban officials where we have some interest in restricting them.

Does that mean we will restrict every and all Cuban official for every and all purpose of travel and conference? No, individual decisions have to be made. Decisions have to be made case-by-case. But here we found a group that we felt at this time it was appropriate to deny the opportunity to travel.

QUESTION: Well, do you then -- do you regard employees -- professors or academics in any country's state-run universities or colleges as government officials?

MR. BOUCHER: It's -- they're government employees. But --

QUESTION: Yeah, but say you work for a New York --

MR. BOUCHER: Different -- no, you can't make that kind of generalization. I mean, in some countries they are federal government employees, some countries they're state government employees, some universities they're local government employees.

I'm not quite sure, but I don't think we have too many countries where we actually have a policy of trying to bring pressure and restrict activities by government officials so that they feel personally the policies that we have.

QUESTION: Well, that sets an interesting precedent.

MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't think it sets any precedent at all because whether these people are government employees or not in other countries, in other countries we don't have a policy of denying travel of foreign government officials. We welcome foreign government officials from 98 percent of the countries of the world -- maybe even 99 -- I haven't counted recently. But so, it's not a precedent for anything other than the fact that Cuba has often wanted to travel more to -- well, wanted to enjoy the hospitality of the United States and spread the party line and we don't think that's always appropriate.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. BOUCHER: Okay, sir.

QUESTION: Change subject?

QUESTION: Yeah, but you keep going -- I'm sorry -- you keep getting back into what they're saying and whether they're going to have a hearty breakfast or not. I mean, if the decision is that they're government employee -- you know, our professors --

MR. BOUCHER: The decision is --

QUESTION: -- at Michigan State University are employees of Michigan State. Should they be denied -- or participation in academic seminars because they work for a state?

MR. BOUCHER: No.

QUESTION: No?

MR. BOUCHER: And that's what I just told your colleague.

QUESTION: And what's the difference with the hospitality, whether they eat a good breakfast, or whether they spread the party line? Don't you want to hear the party line and maybe engage it and try perhaps to persuade them otherwise? Isn't engagement, dialogue, the business of the State Department?

MR. BOUCHER: Engagement and dialogue is not an end in itself. Engagement and dialogue is a means to achieve U.S. interest, and engagement and dialogue is a means to achieve benefits and improvements for people who are oppressed around the world. We have plenty of engagement and dialogue with the Cuban Government through our Interests Section in Havana; unfortunately, it's not very productive.

The Cuban academics and others who have tried to have real engagement and dialogue with their own government on behalf of the Cuban people who signed the Varela Project petition have found themselves thrown in jail and kept there for now going on -- what is it? -- more than two years, or at least a year and a half. That's what happens with engagement and dialogue with the Cuban Government.

I would not profess to say that this travel by government-employed Cuban so-called academics is going to enhance engagement and dialogue or in any way benefit academic discussion and expression in Cuba. But the purpose I think, the primary purpose of denying these visas is not so much because of what they say or the hospitality, I mean, it's just another way of putting it, but the point is to bring the pressure on the Cuban Government and on people who are employed by the Cuban Government so that they understand that their treatment of people in Cuba has implications, has implications for how we see them, and that it's not just a matter of policy pronouncements, but it's something that they can't -- they shouldn't expect to benefit or to enjoy themselves when they're -- when they and their government are oppressing people back in Cuba."

 
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