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Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez at COA's 38th Washington Conference

May 07, 2008

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez
at the COA's annual 38th Washington Conference of the Americas,
on May 7, 2008.

***As Prepared for Delivery***

Thank you very much and I appreciate the very kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be back. It’s a pleasure to be here again at the Council of the Americas in this room. I think we’ve had several meetings here throughout the years, and always lively and always newsworthy. So thank you for the invitation and thank you for your leadership and everything that you do in times that require change and require seeking opportunities and require pushing ahead…you have always been there and you have proven that there is nothing better than dialogue to be able to get economies working together, make economies stronger, make economies more competitive and do what we are all supposed to do, which is create prosperity and create jobs in the hemisphere.

You heard Presidents Bush’s dedication today to the Western Hemisphere. He is dedicated to promoting democracy, prosperity and peace. He has been to Latin America—I’m going to get the number wrong—but more times than you would imagine, and spends more time in Latin America than you could imagine as well. From the very first day always committed to the neighborhood, to the hemisphere, to the countries with whom we share a past and with whom we share a future.

The President talked about Colombia, and I want to talk about Colombia first and move on. I don’t want to repeat a lot of what he said but we should not be having a meeting about the hemisphere, we should not be having a meeting about trade, we should not be having a meeting about allies, without talking about Colombia.

Colombia is a friend of the U.S. Colombia is an ally of the U.S. And Colombia is one of those countries that has engineered the kind of turn around, that personally, I have never seen. I have never witnessed something like what has happened in Colombia the last eight years, in my life. And I have been traveling for 30 years. I have never seen anything like it. Even at a company stage, or at a private sector stage I’ve never seen that kind of a turn around.

While the pending free trade agreement with Colombia is in the best interest of the hemisphere, it is critical for the U.S., and we know that it is critical for Colombia. Just a decade ago, people were concerned that Colombia was going to become a failed state and people talked in those terms. Discussions about the drug cartels and the level of crime and there were comments about the FARC being right outside Bogotá—I mean it was a real, real problem. And as you all know the story of President Clinton and President Pastrana got together they formed something together called Plan Colombia they got into it and it started out with everything from helping out with helicopters to helping out with aid to helping out with programs, but especially now, recognizing the leadership of President Uribe and supporting him and what they have done is nothing short of miraculous.

We are proud, very proud to be a friend of Colombia we are friends of the Colombian people and are fighting very hard to get a vote on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. That is all we have asked for, is just to get us a vote. And we believe that the vote will pass. So, as the President mentioned today that the agreement was signed 533 days ago and in that time U.S. exporters have paid over $1 billion dollars of tariffs that they wouldn’t have to pay, and they won’t have to pay once the agreement goes into affect. So from the standpoint of trade is pretty straight forward.

So, the U.S. and Colombia simply cannot afford to fail. There is nothing more important than the U.S. can do now to help Colombia then continue to push for this free trade agreement and as the President said repeatedly, not doing that will go down as one of our biggest foreign policy mistakes in our hemisphere. So, we are committed, we are not going stop until we get a vote, and the President has been very clear in his commitment to Colombia, to the Colombian People, to President Uribe’s Administration and to getting this agreement passed.

One of the things I have the pleasure of doing in this job as Secretary of Commerce is that I co-chair the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba with Secretary Rice. So I’d like to move on to Cuba, a country in our hemisphere, which we believe is in desperate need of attention. The right kind of attention. This is a good time to put a spotlight on Cuba.

Since January, as you all know, the Castro regime has made what people are calling reforms. And I say reforms, quote, unquote. They have made a series of moves that we consider tactical, very superficial, and frankly we consider a bit sad and a bit cynical. Ordinary Cubans are now permitted to buy cell phones, they are permitted to rent cars and they are permitted to stay in hotels that were once reserved only for tourists. And, of course, the problem is only using convertible pesos, which will remain virtually unattainable by nearly all Cubans.

One of the aspects of this that seems a little bit cynical is that Cubans earn about $17 a month. So to say you are now allowed to stay at a hotel that costs about $400 a night, is a little bit cynical. Or to say, “Hey, you can rent a car if you want; we’re not going to stop you.” That’s a little bit hard if you make $17 a month.

The sale of DVD players and computers has been authorized, but video content is censored and access to the Internet is restricted. And then the other announcement that was made was that ovens and toasters will be made available for sale in 2010. So Cubans will be allowed to buy ovens and toasters in 2010. I think the announcement actually said “some” Cubans, but let’s just say Cubans will be able to do that. So think about that—this is the part that I think is a little bit sad. For the last 50 years, last 49 years, the fear, the poverty, the repression, what Cubans have been through—the prize is that now you can buy a toaster, because now the government allows you to buy a toaster.

The interesting thing is that as these announcements are made they are reminding Cubans about how much control the government has over Cuba. And I think the world is paying attention because the sad part is a lot of people didn’t know that Cubans weren’t allowed to buy a toaster oven, a lot of people didn’t know that Cubans were allowed to rent a car, or stay in tourist hotels and you could go on and on.

The incredible thing is that it is a demonstration of how much control a government can have over people, what you can buy, where you can live, where you can go into, where you can visit, where you can work, what you can think, what you can say, you can go down and down the list. And as you know, the other thing that I think is on the cynical side is that all these good have been available for years on the black market. The difference now is that they will be controlled by the Cuban government.

So, of course, you can have a cell phone but you have to come and register your name. What I hear, and what I read from the public press is that Cubans in Cuba are very nervous, because they have to go in and turn themselves in and register that they have a cell phone. So they are going in and giving the names of their grandchildren, their cousin in Miami, just as long as they don’t have to expose themselves to the regime.

The other very interesting thing is that there’s been more coverage internationally about these moves then there has been in Cuba. And people outside of Cuba find them to be a lot more interesting than people in Cuba, which says to us that a big target group of these moves in the international community. So, it’s a little bit like they’re trying to impress the international community as opposed to help the Cuban people.

The question then is why are people celebrating these moves? They are saying, “Boy, Raul is a reformer. He is enlightened. Look at what he has done! People can buy a toaster oven in 2010!”

So why is it that the world has a different standard for Cuba? If someone did that to us in our countries I don’t think we would consider that a move forward. I don’t think we would allow that. But somehow we think its progress for Cuba. The question, just to throw it out there, is “Why does the international community have such low standards for Cuba?”

On the international coverage, we think that in addition to the coverage that has been done regarding the moves, the tactics, that there needs to be more media focus on the plight of Cuba’s political prisoners, and I’d like to talk to you about that for a few minutes. Last month was the fifth anniversary of the most recent sentence of 46 year old Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. Five years ago he was sentenced to 25 years for advocating for human rights.

Dr. Biscet is a democratic champion and human rights defender who exposed the Cuban practice of forced abortions and of infanticide. He is sitting in jail. He has been in prison for all but 36 days since 1999 in the worst conditions you can imagine. For seven months he was confined to a cell no larger than his own body. He lost 40 pounds and almost all of his teeth. He suffers from ailments such as ulcers and hypertension, and very rarely is he allowed to see visitors.

Daily we hear of stories of political prisoners across the island languish in jail, are tortured are mistreated only because they dare to disagree or stand up to the regime, or for no crime at all. You may not know, but in Cuba so called “pre-criminal activities” can be a crime—pre-criminal activities—you haven’t committed a crime, but we know you are about to commit it. The other one is “dangerousness.” Somehow you are a dangerous character to society.

Those are the crimes for which many political prisoners are jailed. Cubans are arrested for publicly expressing their opinions. They are told where to live, what to study, where to work. They don’t earn enough to feed their families, but they are prohibited from starting a business. It’s a heck of a problem to be in. This white bracelet I am wearing by the way says “cambio.” Not long ago 70 students were arrested because they were wearing a bracelet that said “cambio.”

Systematically oppressing people in jail is part of what is done in Cuba in a very effective way. Brutality occurs to hundreds of Cuban prisoners. First of all they go in and get sick, are fed rotten food, they are forced to live in awful conditions and then they are denied medical attention. You talk about cruelty. Talk about brutality. You want to be brutal to someone, make them sick, throw them in a jail cell, then deny them medial attention. That is what has been happening in Cuba for 49 years and it is happening right now.

Stories have emerged like 27 year old Luis Gonzalez Dias who died of a heart attack on April 19th. He complained of chest pain but was denied medical care. Leonarda Mangarica who was beaten after calling out for medical attention. Randy Cabrera Mayor who sleeps on bare boards with no lights in his cell. Or many of you have heard of Armando Valladares who chronicled 22 years of incredible physical and mental abuse at the hands of Castro’s prison guards in his book, “Against all Hope.”

Or Jorge Luiz Garcia Perez, better known as Antunez. By the way, he was on the call yesterday—he was on the video call with the President—who recently corrected the old Castro claim that “not one case of torture has ever occurred in Cuba” so Antunez, himself a 17-year political prisoner, wrote to Raul Castro and said and I quote, “In fact … there was ‘not one case’ of torture, but thousands and thousands of human being subjected to inhumane, cruel, degrading treatment; and to abject daily living conditions that constitute true acts of torture for which the perpetrators openly and grossly enjoy impunity.”

I can go on and on and on. Every day I get news clippings, public news clippings of the plight of political prisoners in Cuba. And you would be shocked at what goes on 90 miles from our shore.

President Bush made a speech at the State Department recently on Cuba, and I want to quote from that because I thought it was one of the most dramatic quotes that has stuck in my mind is the following quote. He said, “Cuba’s regime no doubt has other horrors still unknown to the rest of the world. Once revealed, they will shock the conscience of humanity. And it will shame the regime’s defenders and all those democracies that have been silent. As Armando Valladares puts it, it will be a time when quote ‘mankind will feel the revulsion it felt when the crimes of Stalin were brought to light.’”

That time is coming. I don’t believe I am exaggerating. I know that time is coming. And when it comes, we believe that the world will be shocked. It will be shocked. Just to understand what has been happening on this island 90 miles from the shores of the U.S.

So, here’s the punch line. On May 21, the White House will be hosting an event to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners of conscience in Cuban jails.

Not to talk about policy. We’re not going to talk about who trades with Cuba, if you agree with the embargo, or if you don’t agree with the embargo. Let’s talk about something we can all agree with: human rights, political prisoners.

And that event at the White House will be one event only that’s taking place. And it’s all designed to shine a spotlight on political prisoners in Cuba. Shine a spotlight. That’s all it’s intended to do. It’s going to involve Members of Congress. Very importantly, it should be an event that takes place in cities throughout the world. So it’s not just in Washington. It’s not just in Miami. It’s not just in New Jersey. But it will be governments and NGOs throughout the world simply showing their commitment to put a spotlight on the plight of those people who are in jail for simply having raised their point of view.

What I would invite you to do on May the 21st is get involved. Get involved. Hold an event. Even if it’s an event to give out white bracelets that say, “Cambio”. Make a statement. Get an NGO involved. Do something to help put the spotlight on political prisoners. Regardless of how you feel about the embargo, about the policy, about Cuba, about Fidel Castro, I think we can all agree that we all hold dearly to human rights. To this idea that it is wrong to put people in jail because they disagree with you, or because they have a different point of view, or because they believe in God or because they want to start a business or any other reason that qualifies someone as a political prisoner.

So I encourage you to join in solidarity with the Cuban people on May the 21st. It will be an opportunity to show our commitment to supporting them in their struggle. And we call—the President does this every time we talk about Cuba. We call on Raul Castro to free all political prisoners. That would be a sign of movement toward a new Cuba. That would be a sign. Not allowing people to buy a rice cooker, but, free political prisoners. That would show that ‘hey’ maybe there’s something, maybe, maybe there’s something different happening on the island.

So we call on Raul to free all political prisoners who have been left to rot in a Cuban dungeon because they believe in freedom. They believe in a different point of view about life. They believe that they should have freedoms that just about every other country in the world takes for granted. So, we believe it’s just a matter of time. Freedom cannot be kept away from people forever. We’ve seen that throughout the course of history. We saw that in the Soviet Union. Nobody ever imagined that the Soviet Union would fall. It’s just a matter of time before freedom arrives once again in Cuba.

So, on behalf of Cubans who are feeling the burden and the pain of being alone. Of being away from their families. Of being in a very difficult and painful jail in which they are submitted to unbelievable atrocities—on behalf of them, let’s not forget who they are and let’s take one moment on May the 21st to shine a spotlight on them. That’s all we are asking the international community to do. And we would appreciate that, but, forget about us. The families and the children and the spouses and the prisoners I think would appreciate that.

So, I thank you again for your leadership. Thank you for your commitment to freedom. Muchas Gracias.