Skip to main content

New Presidential Action on Cuba: A Conversation with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice

"Already, we’re seeing what the United States and Cuba can accomplish when we put aside the past and work to build a brighter future," said Ambassador Rice during this speech on a new presidential directive on Cuba. Transcript and Webast available.

Date & Time

Oct. 14, 2016
10:00am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


"Already, we’re seeing what the United States and Cuba can accomplish when we put aside the past and work to build a brighter future," said Ambassador Rice during this speech on a new presidential directive on Cuba.   

President Obama's National Security Advisor, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, announced a new Presidential Directive guiding the Obama Administration’s approach to Cuba. Ambassador Rice recounted what the President and his team have accomplished since announcing a policy shift towards Cuba in December 2014, and describe how the new Directive will guide the Administration’s approach as it continues to normalize relations with the Cuban Government and people. 

Reaction to the announcement from Carlos Gutierrez, Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group

Image removed.

National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice

“A New Day Between the United States and Cuba”

The Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.

As Prepared for Delivery

Friday, October 14, 2016

Good morning, everybody.  Thank you, Jane—not only for that warm introduction, but for your leadership of this important institution.  I also want to recognize former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, whose remarkable life and achievements reflect the story of so many Cuban Americans. I have been looking forward to coming back to this Center, which has done so much to further our understanding of the Americas.  In particular, I’m pleased to discuss the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba and where we see normalization heading. 

In many ways, it’s still incredible to be talking about normalization at all.  Fifty-four years ago today marked the beginning of perhaps the most dangerous moment in human history.  On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 plane flying high over Cuba photographed the construction of offensive nuclear missile sites on the island—missiles capable of striking Washington, D.C and major cities throughout the hemisphere.  For 13 terrifying days, humanity teetered on the brink of nuclear war.  McGeorge Bundy, my predecessor as National Security Advisor, called the prospect “reciprocal mortal peril.”  Fortunately, cool heads and vigorous diplomacy averted the immediate crisis.  But mutual suspicion remained high, and U.S. relations with Cuba deeply hostile. 

For over half a century, the United States tried to isolate and pressure Cuba, cutting off travel and trade, and limiting opportunities for Cubans and Americans to interact.  The Castros remained in power, while over time the United States found itself increasingly isolated on this issue, especially in our own hemisphere.  Even as we reestablished relations with Communist nations like China and Vietnam, our posture towards Cuba persisted, driven more by inertia and political calculation than a clear assessment of our national interest.  This policy may have made sense during the Cold War.  It was rooted in good intentions.  But, put simply, it was not working.

Recognizing this reality, President Obama came into office determined to re-examine our approach to Cuba.  To begin, we relaxed restrictions on remittances and allowed Cuban Americans to travel home to visit their families.  We stepped up dialogue with the Cuban-American community.  Eventually, we reached out—cautiously and deliberately—to the Cuban government.  It took almost two years of closely-held negotiations, hosted by Canada and then the Vatican.  But finally, on December 17, 2014, the people of the United States and Cuba saw something that many never expected to see in their lifetimes:  President Obama and President Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would begin normalizing relations.  It will be, I expect, one of the enduring achievements of the Obama administration.

Now, I know not everyone agrees with this decision.  There are those who believe that normalization is a mistake, or that we didn’t extract sufficient concessions.  Some reject any notion that the embargo should be lifted at this time or maybe ever.  But the hard truth is the embargo failed to achieve its stated purpose of overturning the Castro regime, while harming the Cuban people.  As one 76-year-old Cuban woman wrote President Obama, “the over half a century cruel embargo on this lovely, enduring and resilient little island just did not work.” 

If we want to actually help the Cuban people, then it is time to turn the page on a policy that is holding them back.  We should learn from over 50 years of experience.  Even as we continue to call on the Cuban government to make their own reforms, let’s lead by example and make our own.  Congress should do its part.  We must lift the embargo once and for all.

In March, I had the privilege of joining President Obama as he became the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.  I’ve been on a lot of foreign trips, but this one was special.  In addition to President Obama’s meetings with President Castro, we met with entrepreneurs and civil society activists.  And, we capped it off watching the Tampa Bay Rays defeat the Cuban national team in an exhibition game.  President Obama entered the stadium to thunderous applause.  I sat near President Obama, President Castro, Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, and Derek Jeter as a Cuban choir sang our national anthem.  It was surreal, to say the least.

As I looked at the young people—in that stadium, and on the streets that greeted our motorcade—it reaffirmed something that the President strongly believes:  we cannot simply stand back and wait for Cuba to change.  We should be engaged with the government and people of Cuba right now.  In recent years, Cuba has taken some initial steps to reform its economy and open up to the world.  And, even as we continue to have serious differences, our new policy continues the work that we have begun to build a bilateral relationship; to improve the livelihoods of the Cuban people; to connect Cuba to the United States and the wider world; and to address our differences through dialogue.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that President Obama is issuing a new Presidential policy directive that will institutionalize this progress and guide the United States’ policy towards Cuba for the future.  This directive outlines the future we’d like to see—a future of greater engagement, greater cooperation, and greater opportunity for Americans and for Cubans.  It assesses the current strategic landscape and our key policy objectives within that context.  And, it directs a wide range of agencies—from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Health and Human Services—to expand their engagement with Cuban counterparts to help achieve those objectives. 

Perhaps most importantly, this directive is being made public.  In decades past, the United States used to have secret plans for Cuba.  Now, our policy is out in the open—and online—for everyone to read.  What you see is what you get.  This unclassified directive supersedes and replaces the previous Administration’s Cuba policy and any prior classified documents laying out that policy. 

As President Obama told the people of Cuba in Havana, “this is a new day—es un nuevo día—between our two countries.”  And, with the remainder of my time, I’d like to discuss what exactly has changed about our approach to Cuba and why it’s so important that we continue on this path.

First and foremost, it’s a new day for our bilateral relations.  After years of bad blood, the American flag flies proudly over our reopened embassy in Cuba.  Last month, President Obama nominated an outstanding Foreign Service officer, Ambassador Jeff DeLaurentis, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.  Jeff has skillfully represented our interests in Cuba, including as Chief of Mission in Havana since August of 2014.  The best way to advocate for our values and interests is to have a strong ambassador who can travel the country and engage the Cuban people.  Stronger diplomatic ties will enable fruitful dialogue on areas where we differ.  So to our friends in Congress who express concern about Cuba’s human rights record, don’t just say you care.  Empower our embassy to do its job.  Confirm Ambassador DeLaurentis as soon as you return from recess. 

Across the board, we’re stepping up engagement between our governments.  We’ve created a new bilateral commission to collaborate on key issues.  Six U.S. Cabinet secretaries have visited the island and four Cuban ministers have come to the United States.  These high-level meetings have yielded progress on everything from marine sanctuaries to agriculture to biomedical research.  As two nations intimately impacted by climate change, we also look forward to partnering to address this grave threat to our planet. 

We’re enhancing our security collaboration.  A year and a half ago, an outdated approach listed Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Today, it is an emerging partner in the fight against terrorism.  Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have begun to deepen cooperation on combating drug trafficking and transnational crime.  In January, U.S. SOUTHCOM invited a Cuban delegation to its annual Caribbean conference to discuss disaster response and other regional security issues.  As General John Kelly, our former SOUTHCOM Commander put it, “We’ve normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges.”  And, with viruses like Zika threatening global health security, our health professionals are increasing cooperation to combat disease, as well as leading new research into cancer control and treatment.

It’s a new day for our economic engagement, as we aim to promote prosperity and opportunity for all of our people.  Even with the embargo still in place, the Obama Administration has initiated a series of regulatory changes designed to increase travel, commerce, and the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba.  We’ve authorized the use of the dollar in certain international financial transactions. We’ve made it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, easier to use American credit and debit cards on the island, easier to sell and to export certain goods and services.  American travel to the island increased over 75 percent from 2014 to 2015.  We’ve seen American businesses entering Cuba—from GE to Airbnb.

These changes are fueling Cuba’s nascent private sector.  The young people at the entrepreneurship event President Obama attended in Cuba would have felt right at home in Silicon Valley.  There was a young graphic designer, who’s now getting training from the Columbia Business School.  There was a woman who created a mobile guide to Cuba, similar to Yelp.  One barber commented that, a year ago, he was the only cuentapropista on his street.  This year, he estimates there are at least 97.  More than one in four Cubans now work in the private sector, roughly double the percentage when President Obama came into office.  And, we want to keep encouraging that creativity and innovation, just as we’ve supported openings for American tech companies like Google and Cisco in Cuba. 

We want to do still more to engage and do business with Cuba.  That’s why, today, the Departments of Treasury and Commerce are announcing further regulatory changes.  We’re expanding the grants and scholarships that can be made to Cubans to include scientific research and religious activities.  That’s in addition to previously authorized grants for humanitarian projects that benefit the Cuban people, such as educational and philanthropic projects.  This change will allow the American people to support more Cuban students, academics, and community leaders.  We’re enhancing medical collaboration, authorizing joint research so that Cubans and Americans can combine their talents in pursuit of vaccines and other medical innovations, and allowing Americans to import FDA-approved Cuban-origin pharmaceuticals that can provide relief to people here at home.  And, we are lifting the cap on Cuban merchandise that Americans who travel to Cuba can bring back with them for personal use.  That includes alcohol and tobacco products.  I thought that one would wake some folks up.  You can celebrate with Cuban cigars and rum.

Despite these changes, there are firm limits on what can be done without Congress lifting the embargo.  So, again, I want to reiterate that Congress should listen to the majority of Americans who oppose the embargo—including a majority of Miami’s Cuban-American community.  End this outdated burden on the Cuban people.  End the restriction on Americans who want to do business with them.  Help us secure a better future for both countries through the exchange of resources, goods, and ideas.  And if you want to start somewhere, get rid of the travel ban—a policy that almost nobody in America outside of Congress supports.

In that spirit, we also want to encourage the Cuban government to accelerate its pursuit of economic reforms.  It should be easier to start a business in Cuba.  “One country, two currencies” should be phased out.  Every Cuban should be able to share in his country’s growth, especially members of marginalized communities like Afro-Cubans.  The Internet should be a tool for the many, not a privilege for the few.  The Cuban government has recently established 100 WiFi hot spots around the island, but, Internet penetration is still only about 5 percent—one of the lowest in the world.  That’s going to hold back a young Cuban from creating the next great mobile app, or a student from accessing a world of knowledge.  So we will continue to urge the Cuban government to do more to connect Cubans to this tremendous engine of growth and to facilitate the free exchange of information and ideas that are the lifeblood of modern economies.

While much work remains to be done, it’s also a new day in our commitment to promote respect for human rights and universal values in Cuba.  Now, I want to be clear:  the United States respects Cuba’s sovereignty and its right to self-determination.  President Obama has been adamant that the United States has no intention of imposing regime change on Cuba.  Cuba’s future is for Cuba’s citizens to decide.  But, that does not mean that we will sideline our most cherished principles, just as we speak up for these things around the world.  We firmly believe that every citizen should be able to choose his or her leaders freely and fairly.  We believe in the right of a lady in white to walk through the streets in protest, just as Americans are free to speak out against bias in our criminal justice system.  Freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion—these aren’t just American values, they are universal values. 

As we do in countries around the world, we will continue to advocate in Cuba for the basic human rights that are recognized by virtually every nation in our hemisphere and to stand by Cubans who peacefully demand these rights.  President Obama has repeatedly raised these issues with President Castro.  President Castro is not shy to criticize what he sees as flaws in the United States’ political and economic systems. 

In fact, our Assistant Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights, Tom Malinowski, is in Cuba right now.  So when dissidents are jailed or harassed, we will continue to speak out forcefully and demand justice.  And, we will continue to raise concerns about the intensifying pressure on civil society.

But we do not have to conceal our support for our values; we believe that engaging openly and honestly is the best way to advance our ideals.  That is why we are making our democracy programs more transparent, and we are broadening the scope of the civil society that we engage.

It’s a new day as well for regional and international cooperation.  We sometimes forget, but when President Obama took office, the United States’ standing in Latin America had suffered.  Hugo Chavez and other anti-American voices were ascendant—and our outdated Cuba policy was a big reason why.  Time after time, in meeting after meeting, leaders from Mexico to Uruguay criticized our approach to Cuba.  It was a constant drumbeat, a perennial irritant as we sought greater cooperation with our neighbors.    

Thanks in part to our normalization policy—and an approach to the region based on cooperation and shared values—relationships between the United States and countries across the hemisphere are as good as they’ve ever been.  While we continue to have serious differences with and concerns about countries such as Venezuela, virtually every country in the region has supported our normalization efforts with Cuba.  And, recognizing that we’ll continue to be on different sides of some regional and global issues, we’re working to integrate Cuba into regional and international organizations to strengthen its adherence to a rules-based order. 

Already, we’re seeing what the United States and Cuba can accomplish when we put aside the past and work to build a brighter future for us all.  In West Africa, American and Cuban doctors joined together to defeat the scourge of Ebola, just as they’ve collaborated to care for patients in Haiti.  In Colombia, the United States and Cuba continue working to end the longest-running civil war in the Western hemisphere.  Obviously, we are disappointed by the results of Colombia’s referendum.  The vote was a reminder that there is still work to be done to realize the future for which President Santos and so many Colombians are striving.  Last week, President Obama called President Santos to congratulate him on his well-deserved receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.  We are encouraged that the ceasefire continues to hold, that political figures across the spectrum continue to seek common ground, and that negotiators continue to meet in Havana to try to salvage the peace agreement.  And, we also welcome the announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN.

Finally, it’s a new day for the peoples of our two countries, as we work to renew and strengthen the bonds between Cubans and Americans.  Cuban-Americans have immeasurably enriched the United States, as any baseball fan could tell you.  But the Cuban-American story is a painful one as well.  For too many decades, families were cut off from one another.  As President Obama said in Havana, “the reconciliation of the Cuban people—the children and grandchildren of revolution and the children and grandchildren of exile—that is fundamental to Cuba’s future.”

In the coming months, those children and grandchildren will be able to travel on up to 110 daily roundtrip flights from the United States to Cuba.  They can send direct mail for the first time in more than 50 years.  American cruise liners are docking in Cuban ports.  We’re encouraging that reconciliation when American chefs like Jose Andres meet their Cuban counterparts, when Shaq plays basketball with young Cubans, or when the American men’s soccer team enjoys a friendly exhibition game with Cuba, as they did a week ago.  Next month, Misty Copeland, of the American Ballet Theatre, will travel to Cuba to teach dance classes and clinics. 

So, we’re going to continue building bridges between our people.  We’re supporting Cuba’s extraordinary commitment to education by expanding education and cultural exchanges, including our 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative.  This week, eight Cubans arrived in the United States as part of the inaugural class of 250 Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Fellows, who are making our hemisphere more interconnected, prosperous, and secure.  That’s in addition to the ten Cuban entrepreneurs who joined President Obama at this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit.  As one Cuban-American woman says, “This is not merely symbolic.  As a young Cuban American, I have witnessed the real possibilities that have opened, through good will, to improve relations between our countries, and to improve the lives of Cuban citizens.”  Ultimately, that is what normalization is all about—improving lives. 

Indeed, as we have travelled around the world, we have heard over and over again that the opening between the United States and Cuba has been a source of hope to people who no longer have any direct connection to this policy.  Because it sends a message that countries can leave behind a history of animosity.  Because it show that people do not have to be defined by their difference.  Because it sets an example for how peaceful engagement can replace perpetual conflict.

Later today, like most days, I’ll be in the Situation Room—the same place where President Kennedy and his Executive Committee held their breath for those tense days in October.  In fact, we now call part of the Sit Room the JFK conference room. 

Who would have thought, in those days, that we could concern ourselves not with Cuban missiles silos and quarantines but with American engagement on the island?

Who would have thought an American president could meet with Cuban entrepreneurs or hear our national anthem in revolution square; or that a Cuban president would answer questions from the American press corps?

Who would have thought that we could one day overcome the weight of history to forge a more secure and prosperous region? 

As we go forward, I’m reminded of the words of the Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco—words he recited at President Obama’s second inauguration, when he spoke of “hope—a new constellation… waiting for us to map it… waiting for us to name it—together.”  That is the promise of this transformative approach to our neighbor.  This is the world Cubans and Americans can shape together.  And, if we continue on this path, I’m confident that our future with Cuba and in our hemisphere can be bright.  Thank you very much. 

Hosted By

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.