Story highlights

Briefing helps communicate U.S. foreign policy to the world, a spokesman says

Topics covered in the briefing extend beyond Latin America's borders

A spokesman outlines the U.S. position on Syria

He says U.S. officials are closely watching Iran's efforts to boost ties in Latin America

Washington CNN —  

Reporters from Spanish-language media peppered a State Department spokesman with questions Thursday on sanctions in Syria, Iran’s influence in Latin America and Colombia’s decision not to invite Cuba to an upcoming regional summit.

The wide range of topics was nothing new for spokesman Mike Hammer, who regularly fields questions from journalists. But it was the first time the State Department offered an official press briefing in Spanish.

“I’ve been giving interviews in Spanish for years, and many of you have asked me when we were going to have a press conference in Spanish. … Speaking with Secretary Clinton, she thought it would be a very good idea, in fact, because what we are trying to do is communicate U.S. foreign policy to the world,” said Hammer, who is acting assistant secretary of state for public affairs. “And obviously there is great interest in the Hispanic world about the foreign policy of the United States.”

In a similar move, last week the State Department fielded Spanish questions on Twitter for the first time in a virtual briefing.

Hammer spoke fluent Spanish during Thursday’s 50-minute press conference. He grew up in Latin America, living in Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, according to his State Department biography.

But reporters who packed into the briefing room asked questions on topics extending beyond Latin America’s borders.

Hammer repeated the United States position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down.

“It is worrisome that the violence still has not stopped. We are looking at how we can help the opposition and also help the humanitarian situation,” he said.

When one journalist asked about a report that Osama bin Laden’s body had not been buried at sea, Hammer swiftly dismissed that assertion, citing Defense Department officials.

“As I understand it, they have already clearly said that it is a false and rather ridiculous report,” he said.

In response to several questions about Iran’s efforts to strengthen ties with Latin America, Hammer said that was something State Department officials were following closely.

“We know about Iran’s conduct in the past and it is troubling. What we see is that Iran is very desperate,” he said, adding that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent Latin American tour “showed how desperate he is to find a friend someplace.”

Colombia’s decision not to invite Cuba to the upcoming summit of the Americas also sparked several questions.

Hammer reiterated the U.S. position that only democratic governments should be represented in the summit.

Reporters tossed out one last question before the spokesman packed up his papers and left the podium at Thursday’s briefing: “Cuando es la proxima?” (“When is the next one?”)

CNN en Español’s Ione Molinares contributed to this report.