Special Briefing
Michael A. Hammer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
October 12, 2012

A Spanish translation of this press briefing is available here.

MR. HAMMER: Hello, good afternoon, and welcome back here to the Department of State in Washington. Sorry for the short delay, the Secretary of State was giving a speech, and we did not want to interrupt during her presentation. As always, it's a pleasure to see you all again, and I see that there is continued interest in these press conferences in Spanish.

I would like to start by acknowledging that this is October, the national month of Hispanic heritage in which we honor the achievements of Hispanics in the United States. And, of course today is also October 12, which is the national holiday in Spain and so congratulations! I have a couple of announcements before taking your questions. So let me start by saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Lima, Peru next Monday and Tuesday, October 15 and 16. In Peru, she will meet with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to discuss bilateral issues and regional cooperation. The Secretary will also participate in an international conference on women’s financial inclusion entitled: "Power: Women as Drivers of Growth and Social Inclusion" at which she will deliver remarks to the plenary session. Ambassador-at-Large for Women's Issues Melanne Verveer will accompany the Secretary on the visit.

And I wanted to raise a matter that is extremely important for us, regarding Mr. Alan Gross who continues to be imprisoned unjustly in Cuba. White House Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough had the opportunity to meet with his wife Judy Gross yesterday, to hear from her how her trip went when she traveled to see her husband, Mr.Gross, in Havana. Mrs. Gross informed Mr. McDonough that she remains deeply concerned based on medical reports that she is receiving and has received from the Cuban government, which continue to be very unclear about concerns regarding a mass on Mr. Gross' shoulder. During that meeting, Mr. McDonough had the opportunity to convey to Mrs. Gross that President Obama is, and continues to be, very concerned about the continued unjust imprisonment of Alan Gross, and that he shares with Mrs. Gross her concerns for him, for his situation, the physical and emotional toll, which is difficult, and that Mr. Gross and his family are facing because of his unjust imprisonment. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson has also had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Gross the 19th of this month ... last month, excuse me, in September, and has spoken several times with her on the phone since. The United States... many have joined us ... many political and religious leaders throughout the world have joined us in the United States calling for the release of Mr. Gross and for him to be freed immediately. This is an issue that we work on every day here at the Department of State, and we continue to urge through the United Nations and other diplomatic channels to resolve this immediately, and so he is able to return. And, we also appreciate the calls from congressmen to release him and let Mr. Gross have his freedom immediately. Neither the White House, nor us here at the Department of State, can understand and regret the lack of seriousness of the Cuban government regarding this issue, and that they are not trying to provide Mr. Gross the opportunity to be freed; this is a very serious case and is something we have been asking for a long time to let Mr. Gross return home and be with his family. We fully support Mr. Gross’ request to travel to visit his mother, Evelyn Gross, who is ill, who is now 90 years old and has inoperable lung cancer and cannot travel to Cuba. So this is a real humanitarian case that should be resolved immediately, and again, we urge the Cuban government to allow Mr. Gross to return home and be with his family.

So with that, we'll start with your questions.

QUESTION: I have two questions about two issues... first about Cuba; there is much talk about the newly renovated rumors on the possible bad health of Fidel Castro; they have mentioned he has a brain tumor. We would like to have a comment from you about that, and secondly, it is also… well, the U.S. government, the Treasury Department and ICE just named the Mara Salvatrucha as a transnational criminal organization. What effect may this have on relations with El Salvador, specifically considering that there is already a truce between gangs?

MR. HAMMER: Well, with respect to the health of Mr. Castro, I have no information, so these questions will have to be directed to Havana, even though, they do not have the tendency to inform very clearly on important issues. In regard to your other issue, I have no specific information about that gang and the announcement that was made but as you know, we at Department of State work very hard with Central American governments to address citizen security issues. In fact, Secretary Clinton when she was in New York during the UN session, she had the opportunity to meet with Central American foreign ministers, in particular, to address this issue, to continue looking into how we can cooperate with SICA and other organizations to confront and combat crime associated with drug trafficking and associated with the various gangs. But on that specific matter, you will have to refer to the other department that made the announcement. Sonia, you managed to get in…

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. Hammer, I have two questions about two countries; one, President Chavez was reelected. What changes and what does not change with relations with the United States, or what... what will be the strategy? Or... I would like you to offer some comments on that. And the second question is about Colombia, on the peace process. Is there any chance, or do you have any information about Mr. Trinidad still participating virtually in this peace process?

MR. HAMMER: Well thank you very much Sonia. Well, regarding Venezuela, you have seen our statements here from the Department of State acknowledging that the Venezuelan people have had the opportunity to participate in the elections, and that the result was accepted by the opposition candidate, so one has to realize that more than 6 million Venezuelans wanted another option, and hopefully that point of view will be taken into account in the country's future. We here at United States, we have for some time been looking to see if we could improve relations with Venezuela. Our position has not changed. We see that there are some issues where we think we could cooperate; because there are mutual interests in the fight against drug trafficking and the fight against terrorism, trade and economic issues. We will see if the reelection of President Chavez's leads to an opportunity to improve relations. However, we still have some, several serious differences that we will continue to express. We appreciate the conduct of candidate Governor Enrique Capriles, who led a peaceful and democratic campaign, is his attempt to become the next president, and accepted the results that transpired in last Sunday's election. In terms of the peace process in Colombia, Sonia, you may know that the United States ... Well, first I want to wish a speedy recovery to President Santos; I hope his health improves. Here in the United States, of course, we fully support the efforts by the Colombian government to advance the peace process, because one wants to see that the FARC finally abandon its terrorist methods, abandon violence, and cease their links to drug trafficking. So, this peace process is going to start in Oslo soon; let's hope it is successful, because the Colombian people have been asking for many decades to be able to live in peace and tranquility, and possibly this process can move forward, and we want it to the successful. With respect to the participation of the individual you asked about, the truth is that the negotiations are conducted by Colombians; so all questions should be referred to them, this is an issue for them.

QUESTION: Hello, Isidro Donoso from AP. I wanted to ask about your reaction to what President Evo said back in Bolivia: he said that under his government, Bolivians began from be freed from U.S. colonization, because before he came to power, their leaders had to consult with the U.S. ambassador in order to appoint ministers and even policemen. Thank you.

MR. HAMMER: Well, we also have spent a long time trying to improve relations with the Bolivian government; we reached an agreement and understanding to see how we can implement a better framework regarding our relations. We are working on it; statements like that one are obviously not constructive, but in fact, we, the United States, want to have a relationship with Bolivia that would be able to facilitate and enable both countries to work on issues of mutual concern, i.e., issues such as the fight against drug trafficking, issues on how to improve the social inclusion of society, issues on economic prosperity of our countries. So we want to find areas where we can cooperate and that is how we approach the possibilities regarding our relations with them.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] FM Hidalgo from Colombia. I want to go back to some questions that Sonia asked. Mr. Hammer, because about the possibility of Mr. Simon Trinidad participating in the process, you said that those questions had to be forwarded to Colombia. However, President Santos said it was the decision of the United States; the Justice Minister said that there are mutual mechanisms, and the Public prosecutor said the same thing. Could you tell us, if at least the possibility is being discussed here in the United States, especially in the event that negotiations, which will take place initially in Oslo and later in Havana... if the guerrillas do not make the concessions, or if there are any obstacles on this request?

MR. HAMMER: Well, as I understand there has been no such request, I will have to check if there has been any news about it. It is a process in which, obviously, we have no part. We want and obviously, we will be consulting with the Colombian government, and the interest is obviously that it be successful, and we will see how it is going to be implemented. But it is an issue that we care about a lot... to follow up on it; with respect to that individual; sorry, but I have no specific information. Go ahead ...

QUESTION: [inaudible] Could you tell us about an incident in which a law enforcement officer killed a young man at the border with Mexico? How does this situation affect the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Mexico on security cooperation and your reaction to the recent death of the Zetas' leader?

MR. HAMMER: Well, we congratulate the Mexican government and President Calderon's administration and the navy for achieving this great success against the Zetas - the operation against Mr. Lazcano. This is something that clearly is a major success. We, the United States, are always looking to see how we can cooperate with Mexico in the fight against drug trafficking, in this fight against the cartels, which is a real threat to the Mexican public and an unacceptable level of violence that has to be confronted, and we have high expectations, and we will continue to see how we can continue with this good level of cooperation that we have had in recent years with the Calderon administration and the incoming administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. With regard to what happened at the border; I have no details, but as you know every time something potentially tragic happens, we have to find out what happened, to see what were the circumstances. I am sure this is being investigated, and I will have to refer you to the border patrol and to the Justice Department with respect to any specific information regarding this case. Yes, in the back ... yes.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Venezuela, when they repeat again, we hope they take into account that 6 million people did not vote for him. In every election there is a rather large percentage, in any country, of people who do not win elections. About this remark, could you elaborate a little more, are you afraid... are you worried that the government of Hugo Chavez will not govern for all? And number two, if you could have any comments, are there any comments on the election of Nicolas Maduro, as Vice President?

MR. HAMMER: Well, first with respect to the vice president, that is a domestic issue, obviously, for Venezuela as far as whom President Chavez has appointed to be his vice president. What we want to portray is that in any democratic country, as you mention, some portion of the population, of course, does not necessarily favor the person who has been elected as president, but any president has a responsibility to represent all the people. So one wants, in Venezuela's case like any other democracy that attention is paid to what are the people's concerns and to treat everyone fairly and that people can speak freely, that they may have the opportunity to participate economically and freely in society and in all the opportunities they all may have. So, that's what we're emphasizing that he has a new mandate, and hopefully President Chavez keeps in mind that a large portion of the population would like to be better represented, and will see if that is going to be the fact. And we’ll see if that is the case in the coming years. Yes?

QUESTION: Precisely, on this issue, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said recently that he would not rule out running for reelection. We already have in Venezuela's President Chavez winning, re-elected. What does the Department of State of the United States make out of this situation? Are the democracies in Latin America in crisis?

MR. HAMMER: Well, I think that in general one would say that democracy in the hemisphere has been strengthening. It is an ongoing effort, even in the United States we always talk about ... as a young democracy, we should always be looking and seeing how we can improve and represent our citizens in the most appropriate manner and how it should be, how the government should have transparency and be able, obviously, to govern in the best way possible, and we have the OAS Democratic Charter, which is a document already about 11 years old, which embeds the principles of the hemisphere reflecting the interest we have in promoting democracy, strengthening institutions, that there are well functioning judicial systems. And in that regard, if maybe, in some countries, there are some difficulties, one would like to see they are addressed for a country to move forward, so that the people feel at ease, because that level of democracy has to be appreciated. And the work of the United States, along with many other countries is to see how we can improve in all instances. And we offer help. There is an open government initiative in which many countries in the region, including Costa Rica and Brazil and other countries are participating, also to promote transparency so that governments respond to the needs of their citizens. So, I would say there has been a generally positive trend, but at times, we can see that there are problems, pressures on the press, pressure against freedom of expression. Obviously, the case of Cuba, which has not improved, it is a very sad situation that after so many decades the Cuban people are not provided a chance to express themselves politically, and cannot themselves choose their own future, but we are working on it. We have seen a lot of success originating from the Summit of the Americas, many initiatives dealing with problems affecting the hemisphere; for example the "Connecting the Americas 2022" energy initiative was launched, in which we want the whole hemisphere to be joined electrically, so that we have energy for all. We have seen how we are promoting women and girl rights, for them to have more economic opportunities. We have seen how we are confronting environmental issues, economic issues, the issue of drugs. So, generally, there is very good cooperation in the hemisphere between all countries. And what we see is the spirit of cooperation, and we know that in some cases, well, there is no interest. But I think that is their loss, in other words, I think what we want to see is more international cooperation, not less. Yes, back there...

QUESTION: [Inaudible]. from La Nación. A question following Sonia and Silvia. The issue on Venezuela: immediately after Hugo Chavez´s victory, he received a message from Argentina, one of the first greetings issued by President Kirchner, who said, "Congratulations, Hugo your victory is also ours." I was wondering if you see this message with maybe an acknowledgement of some regional leadership, or how have you read this?

MR. HAMMER: No, that is a matter for Argentina, in other words, regarding its relations with Venezuela. Each country is going to make its own determinations in terms of what relationships they have with various countries. What we urge is that when we are dealing with other countries, is to recognize when there are problems, when there are issues of concern in terms of democracy and the economy, and addressing these issues openly, and we will see what are the positions of each country. I think we are very clear, the United States, what are our views and in other cases, each country will express its point of view, and that's something we accept and obviously is something that can be discussed. Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Is there any interpretation on what is happening with an Argentine warship, the frigate Libertad that has been detained by the government of Ghana. I wanted to know if you have any comment on that?

MR. HAMMER: I saw a news story about it; in fact, that is an issue between Argentina and Ghana. I know there is a U.S. company that is involved, but it has nothing to do with the government of the United States. So, it is an issue that has to dealt with between the governments of Ghana and Argentina. Thanks, yes?

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Question about the Benghazi attack. I was wondering if there is a sense for when the ongoing investigations will be ready, and if there is any sense of [inaudible] new embassy [inaudible] of Congress and finally, I would like to know if there is any revisions to the security guidelines for embassies abroad, I wanted to know if that has been completed and if decisions have been made to strengthen security in some places.

MR. HAMMER: Well, the issue of Benghazi is a subject, you might have heard, that Secretary of State Clinton discussed today, and obviously, we regret the tragic loss of our colleagues, Ambassador Stevens, Mr. Smith, Mr. Doherty, Mr. Woods. And, as Secretary Clinton said, she recognizes that an investigation must take place. We have an FBI investigation; the investigation that is being done by the ARB that is led by Ambassador Tom Pickering. And, there is much we still do not know, and they are doing their investigation and gathering information daily; maybe there will be more information that may clarify what were the events and what happened. And, from the Department of State and as Secretary Clinton said, nobody wants to see the truth more and know what happened than her and President Obama. We want to know what happened; likewise, we want to know if something failed, and if something failed, it should be corrected clearly to ensure that in the future our diplomats are well protected. Regarding if there are any changes in terms of security around the world, take note that here, we are performing daily analysis based on intelligence we have and the situation in each country around the world where there may be threats, and the truth is that unfortunately in the life of a diplomat, there is always some risk, but the job of the Department of State is to ensure that this risk is neutralized or at a minimum and to prevent things like what happened in Benghazi. So that is a job that is taken very seriously; it is something that everyone here in the Department of State is aware of - security issues, and we want to take precautions, taking into account that we as diplomats are working abroad in sometimes very dangerous areas, and clearly, we do not want anything to happen to us and obviously, we want to ensure that we are working within a secure environment, but there is a certain risk. I have no more information about how long it will take for all these reports, in particular, the one from the FBI. The ARB has been urged to carry out its investigation as soon as possible, but at the same time they have to do their job ... we have to give them room, but we want it to be a transparent process. And at the end of the day we will indeed know what was happened, and that really is what we are looking for -- the truth.

Well, it’s Friday ... right? Well, in any case, the weekend is coming; thank you very much for coming. Let's see if we do this again. Thank you all and see you soon.

PRN: 2012/1638