Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The phony Cuba embargo debate

In recent weeks, an unholy alliance of political activists and economic opportunists have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that the U.S. embargo of Cuba is inviting "catastrophic" damage to Florida by preventing the U.S. from responding to a potential oil spill from a newly launched Cuban rig just outside U.S. waters. The ...

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

In recent weeks, an unholy alliance of political activists and economic opportunists have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that the U.S. embargo of Cuba is inviting "catastrophic" damage to Florida by preventing the U.S. from responding to a potential oil spill from a newly launched Cuban rig just outside U.S. waters. The claim is without merit.

The impetus for this contrived argument is that in late January, the Spanish oil company Repsol began exploratory drilling in Cuban waters -- 80 nautical miles from the Florida Keys -- using a Chinese-made rig owned by an Italian company.

The fact is, under current U.S. policy, any U.S. President has broad authorities to ensure all U.S. resources and expertise can be deployed in case of a disaster off the southeastern U.S. coast. And all indications are the administration has moved expeditiously -- with lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico -- to plan a U.S. response -- with no changes needed in U.S. law.

In recent weeks, an unholy alliance of political activists and economic opportunists have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that the U.S. embargo of Cuba is inviting "catastrophic" damage to Florida by preventing the U.S. from responding to a potential oil spill from a newly launched Cuban rig just outside U.S. waters. The claim is without merit.

The impetus for this contrived argument is that in late January, the Spanish oil company Repsol began exploratory drilling in Cuban waters — 80 nautical miles from the Florida Keys — using a Chinese-made rig owned by an Italian company.

The fact is, under current U.S. policy, any U.S. President has broad authorities to ensure all U.S. resources and expertise can be deployed in case of a disaster off the southeastern U.S. coast. And all indications are the administration has moved expeditiously — with lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — to plan a U.S. response — with no changes needed in U.S. law.

Yet, that has not stopped the doomsday scenarios.  For example, according to one alarmist analysis, in case of an accident:

"The Coast Guard would be barred from deploying highly experienced manpower, specially designed booms, skimming equipment and vessels, and dispersants. U.S. offshore gas and oil companies would also be barred from using well-capping stacks, remotely operated submersibles, and other vital technologies."

The arguments, frankly, are a hash of half-truths and erroneous and contradictory statements about the U.S. embargo.  For example, we are told the U.S. embargo prevents interaction between the U.S. and Cuban officials to discuss response scenarios, only to learn that they already are interacting. Meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials (and those from Bahamas, Jamaica, and Mexico) have already taken place under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization.

Then there is the ludicrous scenario posited of vintage Cuban crop dusters being forced into action because the embargo allegedly would prevent U.S. aircraft from dropping oil dispersants.  Nonsense.

In addition, there is the de rigueur clumsy caricature of pro-embargo Cuban Americans, who "might protest any decision allowing U.S. federal agencies to assist Cuba or letting U.S. companies operate in Cuban territory." This seems not to be aware that most Cuban Americans live in South Florida and would have a decided interest in any despoiling of the state’s environment. They would hardly be averse to any U.S. mobilization to counter a spill. What they do justifiably object to is any exploitation of the situation for political ends.

Indeed, a particularly egregious example of the politicization of the issue has been the involvement of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been positively sanguine about Cuban oil drilling. A powerful lobby able to mobilize hundreds of activists to oppose U.S. offshore drilling, they have been leading advocates of across-the-board U.S. cooperation with Cuba on offshore oil drilling, despite the latter’s woeful inexperience and dearth of capabilities in offshore oil drilling. In this, they have been aided and abetted by assorted U.S. oil services companies who have been misrepresenting U.S. policy in a misguided attempt to create economic opportunity.

In the end, the likelihood that Cuba possesses any commercially viable oil reserves off its shores is dubious. And, in the unlikely event that it does discover any, it’s probable that they will be exploitable only after the Castro regime passes into the dustbin of history.  In the meantime, however, allowing Cuba anywhere near a deepwater platform is akin to handing a hand-grenade to a monkey. The Obama administration could have done better by strong-arming foreign companies from partnering with the Castro brothers on this project. But they appear to have a handle on cleaning up any attendant mess — without any superfluous changes to U.S. policy towards the Castro dictatorship.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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