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Commentary: Will Gulf oil spill strengthen U.S.-Cuba relations?

Here's an interesting theory: the disastrous British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will help increase U.S.-Cuba ties.

Cuba is stepping up its oil-exploration activities along its northern coast, and the Obama administration — which is under fire at home for the BP calamity and can hardly afford a similar accident in Cuban waters close to South Florida — wants to prepare for any possible problems, according to several diplomats and oil-industry experts.

Repsol, the Spanish oil giant, is about to start exploring for oil in Cuba's North Basin this year or next year, using a Chinese-made deep-water platform, the Reuters news agency says. In addition, Norway's Statoil-Hydro, Brazil's Petrobras and other international oil companies are scheduled to start exploring Cuban waters over the next few years.

According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, Cuba has discovered reserves of more than five billion barrels of oil, similar to the reserves of oil-producing countries such as Ecuador or Colombia.

"As Cuba continues to develop its deepwater oil and natural gas reserves, the consequence to the United States of a similar mishap occurring in Cuban waters moves from the theoretical to the actual," says a new study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"The sobering fact that a Cuban oil spill could foul hundreds of miles of American coastline and do profound harm to important marine habitats demands cooperative and proactive planning by Washington and Havana," it adds.

Jorge Pinon, a former president of Amoco Oil Latin America who co-authored the Brookings paper, told me that Washington's commercial embargo on the island would prohibit American companies from cooperating with Cuba or with foreign companies working in Cuba, in the event of an oil spill in Cuban waters.

"If the BP oil spill had happened in Cuba, the oil would have arrived in Miami, and the United States would not have been able to do anything," Piñon said. "If it happened in Bahamas, or Mexico, or anywhere else, U.S. companies would be there cleaning up the mess in less than 24 hours."

In his Brookings paper, Pinon and co-author Robert L. Muse propose a series of measures that they say President Barack Obama could take immediately, without violating the U.S. embargo laws.

They include allowing "temporary U.S. exports to Cuba of any U.S. equipment and technology necessary" to prevent and control oil spills, pre-approval of licenses for travel to Cuba by U.S. engineers, environmental experts and academics who could help in emergency-relief efforts, and joint U.S.-Cuba exercises to coordinate emergency responses.

Asked whether the Obama administration is holding talks about these issues with Cuba, a State Department spokesman told me that there are "working-level discussions" with the Cuban government on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and that "we also communicated the U.S. desire to maintain a clear line of communication" on the issue.

While few anticipate a lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, pro-embargo forces fear that opening up energy-related exports to Cuba will become a big loophole that would further weaken the U.S. sanctions, and would give a political victory to the Cuban regime.

Anti-embargo forces and oil companies argue that opening U.S. trade with Cuba on energy issues would help make Cuba less dependent on the $3 billion a year it gets in Venezuelan oil subsidies. When Cuba's current regime comes to an end, it's in the U.S. interest that Cuba be less vulnerable to Venezuela's blackmail, they argue.

My opinion: I would not be surprised if -- just as the Clinton administration exempted agricultural goods from the embargo, a decision that shortly thereafter made the United States the largest food exporter to Cuba -- the Obama administration finds a way to exempt energy and environment-related goods and services from the U.S. embargo.

Cuba and the United States are already holding regular talks on migration, postal service and telecommunications, and there is already unofficial talk of upcoming contacts on terrorism and drugs, so the new U.S.-Cuban talks on energy and the environment would amount to a continuation of an ongoing trend.

That's not bad, as long as Obama doesn't forget that giving away everything without concrete Cuban steps to respect human and civil rights would amount to rewarding repression.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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