Why is Cuba so quiet about BP oil spill?

Beach in Varadero, Cuba.

Varadero Beach on Cuba's north coast. Image via Wikipedia

NOAA’s projected trajectory for the BP Oil Spill shows the first tongue of oil poking south on Wednesday, aiming toward Cuba, the Straits of Florida and the Gulf Loop Current.

If the plume continues in that direction, oil that has been roiling in Gulf Waters could reach the Gulf Stream and begin to streak toward the North Atlantic, fouling beaches in Cuba and the Bahamas before fanning out in the open ocean.

There has been little official comment out of Cuba about the spill. Cuban officials have said they are monitoring the situation and have pledged cooperation with the United States. The United States has been even more taciturn about the threat to Cuba.

On May 19, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters the U.S. and Cuba were holding ongoing “working-level” talks about the oil spill. But Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Dagoberto Rodriguez recently told visiting diplomats that no such talks have taken place (even as the two countries meet to discuss immigration).

“No talks on the subject have been held, Rodriguez said, but for its part, Cuba is ready for them,” according to Wayne S. Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Smith just returned from Cuba after accompanying a group of Texas legislators to discuss hurricane preparation.

By the time we traveled to Cuba, another, more urgent threat had arisen in the Gulf of Mexico: BP PLC’s oil spill off the Louisiana coast. That then became the first topic of conversation. The Cubans with whom we spoke, including Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Dagoberto Rodriguez, acknowledged that at first the spill had not been a great concern to them — in fact had seemed to have little to do with Cuba. They had assumed that the U.S. — and BP — would get it capped and contained quickly. Their concerns have of course grown — especially so as their information now indicates the expanding pool of oil may soon be caught up in the loop current and carried through the Straits of Florida into the Atlantic. Further, their specialists say that as a result of wind and currents, the flow could do serious damage to the Cuban coast.

Until Smith published his remarks in yesterday’s Corpus Christi Caller, little reaction had emerged from Cuba. The spill has received scant attention in official publications, including Granma, newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, and not much more in unofficial publications like The Havana Times. Early reports in the Cuba-friendly Chinese press have not been updated for weeks.

During her visit to Barbados last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had little to say about the possibility of the spill reaching Cuba except, “We earnestly hope that does not happen.”

NOAA's projection for the offshore spill, in light blue, begins to tilt toward Cuba.

The relative silence might derive from the fifty-year frost that lingers between the two nations, but Cuba has another reason to tread lightly.

Cuba is drilling for oil in deep water in the Florida Strait, less than 100 miles from Key West.

Cubapetroleo, the state oil company, estimates that up to 20 billion barrels of crude may be lurking beneath the seabed in Cuban waters northwest of the island.

That number rivals total U.S. reserves (29 billion barrels) and could transform tiny Cuba into a wealthy oil state. An earlier estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey put the Cuban resources at five to 10 billion barrels. Cuba could be lying, but the U.S. made its estimate from a much greater distance.

Spanish, Norwegian, Indian and Chinese firms are in Cuba assisting with exploration. Russia’s oil firm TNK-BP, half owned by BP, has also expressed interest.

“Cuba will begin drilling there by the end of this year,” Jorge Piñon, a visiting fellow at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Center, said last month. “And we need to ask what would happen if a BP-type accident occurs in Cuban waters that could threaten U.S. shores? We need to have some kind of communication mechanism in place.”

Piñon recently retired from a thirty-year career with BP-Amoco, including five years as president of BP-Amoco Latin America.

What did Gordon Duguid mean by “working-level talks”? The relative public silence between the U.S. and Cuba could mask a private “communication mechanism” behind the scenes.

In December, the Treasury Department denied an application by the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors for a license to visit Cuba, a necessity for the group to bypass the embargo legally. Recently, Treasury reversed itself and approved the request.

“The IADC delegation will brief Cuban authorities on global drilling standards and best practices, environmental protection, safety procedures, hurricane preparation and personnel training,” according to the IADC newsletter, Drillbits. “An overview of the prospect of deepwater drilling offshore Cuba would also be conducted.”

The Houston oilmen are expected in Havana in August.

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