The Oil and the Glory

Will the Florida vote hinge on Cuban oil?

Florida’s anti-Castro activists, along with both presidential candidates, can relax for the time being — the latest attempt to strike oil in Cuba has failed. If Spain’s Repsol had found what it expected underneath the Northbelt Thrust north of Havana, it could have seriously complicated politics in pivotal Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential race. ...

Juan Barreto  AFP/Getty Images
Juan Barreto AFP/Getty Images

Florida’s anti-Castro activists, along with both presidential candidates, can relax for the time being — the latest attempt to strike oil in Cuba has failed. If Spain’s Repsol had found what it expected underneath the Northbelt Thrust north of Havana, it could have seriously complicated politics in pivotal Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential race. Yet, Cuban oil politics may still be coming to Florida.

Few places in the U.S. are so tethered to the politics of another country as is Florida. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians — Cuban-Americans — continue to seethe at the Castro family’s survival after a half-decade in power (waving above, President Raul Castro) and they expect their politicians to seethe with them. On the national scale, it is difficult to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes if the Cuban-Americans are against you.

Hence the politics of Cuban oil. Estimates are that the Northbelt Thrust contains 6 billion barrels of oil. Repsol tried and failed to find commercial volumes in 2004, but was sure that the industry’s vaunted new technology would succeed this second time. If its intuition was right, Repsol would have validated Cuba’s aim of becoming the world’s next petro-state. That oil would have buttressed the Castro edifice with a big new source of export dollars.

Because of U.S. sanctions, no U.S. technology was used in the drilling. Yet, some quarters predictably would have accused President Obama of allowing the hated Castros to get rich. Both he and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would have had to find a way to make the anti-Castro folks feel better. What neither would want to say is, "Get a life. It’s called the free-enterprise system."

Because of this charged atmosphere, Repsol itself — which has serious operations in the U.S. as well — has been forced to lay extremely low, not talking at all publicly about its Cuban operations.

Alas, a few days ago, Repsol said the well was dry.

Yet no one can relax entirely – Malaysia’s Petronas is in line to drill next in Cuba’s waters, and the results seem likely well before November. Hence, Obama and Romney must keep watching Cuba.

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