PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD — President Obama took a few questions from the press today after concluding his time at the Summit of the Americas.
TAPPER: Thank you, Mr. President. You have heard from a lot of Latin American leaders here who want the U.S. to lift the embargo against Cuba. You’ve said that you think it’s important leverage to not lift it. But in 2004, you did support lifting the embargo. You said, "It’s failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and squeeze the innocent" and "it’s time for us to acknowledge that this policy has failed." I’m wondering, what made you change your mind about the embargo?
OBAMA: 2004 that seems just eons ago. What was I doing in 2004?
TAPPER: Running for Senate, sir.
OBAMA: I was running for Senate, there you go. Look, what I said and what I think my entire administration has acknowledged is that the policy that we’ve had in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free and that’s our, our lodestone, our north star when it comes to our policy in Cuba.
It is my belief that we’re not going to change that policy overnight, and the steps that we took I think were constructive in sending a signal that we’d like to see a transformation. But I am persuaded that it is important to send a signal that issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy — that those continue to be important, that they’re not simply something to be brushed aside.
What was remarkable about the summit was that every leader who was participating was democratically elected. We might not be happy with the results of some elections; we might be happier with others; we might disagree with some of the leaders, but they all were conferred the legitimacy of a country speaking through democratic channels. And that is not yet there in Cuba.
Now, I think that as a starting point, it’s important for us not to think that completely ignoring Cuba is somehow going to change policy, and the fact that you had Raul Castro say he’s willing to have his government discuss with ours not just issues of lifting the embargo, but issues of human rights, political prisoners, that’s a sign of progress.
And so we’re going to explore and see if we can make some further steps. There are some things that the Cuban government could do. They could release political prisoners. They could reduce charges on remittances to match up with the policies that we have put in place to allow Cuban merican families to send remittances. It turns out that Cuba charges an awful lot, they take a lot off the top. That would be an example of cooperation where both governments are working to help Cuban families and raise standards of living in Cuba.
So there are going to be some ways that the Cuban government I think can send some signals that they’re serious about pursuing change. And I’m hopeful that over time the overwhelming trend in the hemisphere will occur in Cuba, as well. And I think that all of the governments here were encouraged by the fact that we had taken some first steps. Many of them want us to go further, but they at least see that we are not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born.