Fairness not U.S. Oil Thirst Should Be Major Reason for Ending the Embargo to Cuba

Cleveland.com: The idea behind our trade embargo was to bring down the Cuban government. Half a century later, that hasn’t happened. But oil is far from the only reason to end the trade embargo with Cuba. The embargo hurts us, while it has done little good for the people of Cuba.

Oil may soon trump politics in our relations with Cuba. Estimates of Cuban offshore oil reserves as recently disclosed by the Cuban government hover around 20 billion barrels. That would approximate known U.S. oil reserves.

Even if the Cuban estimate is on the high side, that would be a great deal of oil. According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration, in 2008 Cuba produced 52,000 barrels of oil per day, supplying 28 percent of domestic demand. In 1999, Cuba opened up a deepwater exploration zone off its northwest coast.

Our trade embargo, which dates to the Kennedy administration, precludes U.S. oil companies from taking a serious look at Cuban oil.

Companies from other countries are under no such constraints. Sherritt International of Canada has been pumping off Cuba’s north coast for more than a decade. Companies from half a dozen countries are in active exploration by arrangement with the Cuban government.

With oil as with other investment issues, firms from other countries have gained the march on U.S. companies. Ending the sanctions regime would allow U.S. companies to compete.

The idea behind our trade embargo was to bring down the Cuban government. Half a century later, that hasn’t happened. We are the only country that blocks trade with Cuba.

Beyond access to oil, the prospect of major drilling off Cuba’s north coast is a matter for U.S. concern because of possible pollution. A maritime boundary negotiated with Cuba in 1977 splits the waters between Cuba and Florida. With Cuba just 90 miles away, Cuba could drill as close as 45 miles from Key West, Fla.

A major spill in those waters would be carried by ocean currents straight to Florida. If we are involved in the drilling, we can keep better tabs on the safety situation.

Florida’s junior Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American who grew up near those waters, is wary about major drilling. “It’s a very, very sensitive and beautiful resource,” he says, “that could not tolerate a lot of the things that go along with oil drilling.” Despite Martinez’s reservations, drilling is likely to occur, whether we are involved or not.

At hearings on the Cuban oil issue in April in the House of Representatives, members of Congress were told of positive advantages from efforts we have made to date to engage with Cuba on other issues of mutual concern.

Cuba has cooperated on drug smuggling. It has kept the island from becoming a transit point for smuggling into the United States, even though its geographic position makes it ideal for that purpose. Cuba’s drug enforcement agency has provided information to the United States about its anti-smuggling efforts.

Cuba has cooperated on immigration. Since 1994, we have had an arrangement with Cuba to allow 20,000 Cubans to migrate legally every year. But smuggling of migrants still occurs, with its attendant corruption, violence, and danger to would-be entrants. So we have already made inroads on total non-cooperation with Cuba.

Our proximity to Cuba, and the huge number of Cubans living in the United States call for increased consular relations. We have no direct diplomatic relations. Before 1961, we had a staff of 300 diplomatic and consular personnel in Havana, plus a small consulate in Santiago de Cuba. Nowadays, the United States has a jerry-rigged diplomatic arrangement via the Swiss government, which acts as a go-between. Cuba is forced to maintain a similar arrangement in Washington, operating through the Swiss embassy to the United States.

Oil is far from the only reason to end the trade embargo with Cuba. The embargo hurts us, while it has done little good for the people of Cuba. The Obama administration is, wisely, taking a hard look at our Cuba policy. It is time for a change.

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