UPDATED: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes To Cuba- Was To Have Been Secret Visit

The Honorable Benjamin J. Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, is visiting the Republic of Cuba on what had been an unannounced visit to meet with officials of the government of the Republic of Cuba.

UPDATE NOTE: 5 December 2016- When inquiring as to whether Mr. Rhodes was scheduled to use a United States government aircraft for his unannounced visit to the Republic of Cuba, the Obama Administration responded that since Mr. Rhodes was representing the United States at a service in honor of H.E. Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, former president of the Republic of Cuba, he traveled "by official government plane to Cuba, as is customary for this type of official travel." The problem with the response is the visit by Mr. Rhodes to the Republic of Cuba was scheduled before his participation in the services was announced.  So, the Obama Administration was dishonest and, despite follow-up requests, refuses to provide additional information.

The visit only become public due to his participation at a service in the city of Havana in honor of H.E. Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, former president of the Republic of Cuba.

Considered an architect of the Obama Administration initiatives which became public on 17 December 2014, the visit of Mr. Rhodes to the Republic of Cuba with 51 days remaining in the Obama Administration may signal a final (some might argue desperate) effort by the Obama Administration to 1) initiate further regulatory changes and/or 2) obtain commitments from the government of the Republic of Cuba that it will implement existing (or new) initiatives quickly (before 20 January 2017) and approve the use of existing licenses issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the United States Department of the Treasury and Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the United States Department of Commerce.

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
29 November 2016

Q    Sure.  Thanks, Josh.  Will the United States send a delegation to the funeral of Fidel Castro?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, I can tell you that the President has decided not to send a presidential delegation to attend the memorial service today.  I can tell you, however, that Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes will attend the service, as will the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Jeff DeLaurentis.

Those of you who have been following this story closely over the last couple of years know that Mr. Rhodes has played a leading role in crafting the normalization policy that President Obama announced about two years ago.  He has been the principal interlocutor with the Cuban government from the White House in crafting this policy and implementing it successfully.  As a part of those responsibilities, he has the occasion to travel to Cuba occasionally to further implement this policy.

He actually was already planning to travel to Cuba this week, so in addition to the meetings that he already has on his schedule with the Cuban government officials and with officials at the U.S. embassy, he also will be attending the service that the Cuban government has planned for this evening.  And as I mentioned, he'll be attending with the top U.S. diplomat on the island, Ambassador DeLaurentis.

Q    So I guess it begs the question that if two high-ranking U.S. officials -- national security official who worked on Cuba, the ambassador -- are attending, how is that not a U.S. delegation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, there’s a formal process where the President would designate a presidential delegation to travel to Cuba specifically to represent the United States at a foreign event.  Sometimes it's an inauguration; sometimes it's a coronation; sometimes it's a funeral.  That will not be taking place this time.  But the United States will be represented at the event by our top diplomat on the island and by a senior White House official who will be traveling to Cuba.

Q    What was the thinking behind not designating a formal delegation?

MR. EARNEST:  Obviously, Josh, so much of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with Cuba is quite complicated.  There are many aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship that were characterized by a lot of conflict and turmoil not just during the Castro regime, but we continue to have some significant concerns about the way the Cuban government currently operates, particularly with regard to protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people.

So we believe that this was an appropriate way for the United States to show our commitment to an ongoing, future-oriented relationship with the Cuban people.  And this is an appropriate way to show respect, to participate in the events that are planned for this evening, while also acknowledging some of the differences that remain between the two countries.  

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Back on the Castro event.  You're not suggesting that Mr. Rhodes and Mr. DeLaurentis are attending this in a private capacity, right?  They are representing the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  That's correct.  And I think if I was unclear about that, yes, they will be representing the United States at the memorial service this evening.

 Q    One last thing on the Castro funeral plans.  I know there's the memorial service today, but there's a lot going on -- I know the formal funeral ceremony is taking place on Sunday.  Is the United States sending anyone to that ceremony,y or is this the only event, memorial event, that is being attended by U.S. officials?

MR. EARNEST:  My understanding, at least the way that it's been described to me is this is -- the event that the Cuban government is organizing for this evening is the event where the United States will be represented by the Deputy National Security Advisor and by the top diplomat in Cuba.

I guess I'd refer you to the embassy in Havana for greater information about whether or not there will be a U.S. presence at any of those other events.  Certainly no one from the White House and no other delegation will be sent to Cuba to participate in any of the other events.  But I don't know if there will be other diplomats or other officials who are based at the embassy that may participate in some other events.

Q    The memorial service and the funeral Sunday -- I just want to clarify one thing on that.  Will the same U.S. non-presidential delegation be attending the funeral?  Can we assume that Ben Rhodes and ambassador -- or DeLaurentis will also be in attendance at the funeral?

MR. EARNEST:  They are only participating in the memorial service that's planned for tonight.  The briefing that was provided to me is that the actual funeral itself is actually a private event.  But I can tell you that this is the only event that the Deputy National Security Advisor is planning to attend.

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
30 November 2016

Q    Thank you.  On the funeral of Fidel Castro in Cuba this weekend, it’s a relatively long affair.  So I’m wondering whether at some point the President is expected to watch parts of the funeral.  And will he be updated regularly by Ben Rhodes, who is there for the funeral?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't anticipate that the President will watch any of the proceedings on television.  Mr. Rhodes and our diplomat in Cuba, Ambassador DeLaurentis, participated in a memorial service last night.  But I'm not aware that either of them intends to be a part of all of the activities over the next three days.  The two of them were in attendance last night representing the United States.

But Mr. Rhodes remains in Cuba today because he's been -- he had previously planned to travel to Cuba this week to have meetings with government officials and officials at the U.S. embassy to discuss the continued effort to implement a policy of normalizing relations between our two countries.  But the last I heard is that he's actually planning to come back tonight.  So I don't think that -- I know that he won't be there and participating in the events that are planned over the next several days.

     Q    Any details by any chance of who exactly those meetings were with and what they might have been about?

MR. EARNEST:  Not at this point, but when he gets back we'll see if we can get you a readout of his engagements while he was there.