The good news? Cuban energy officials are taking the lessons of the BP oil spill disaster very seriously, according to a group of oil drilling and environmental experts just back from Cuba, including the co-chairman of the Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (also former EPA administrator), the head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, a former senior executive for Royal Dutch Shell and longtime Cuba expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.
The bad news? Less than three months before deep water drilling begins in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, neither Congress nor the Obama administration have taken the necessary steps to help prevent or respond to a similar disaster that could impact even more U.S. coastline. Granted, it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine the present Congress sending any legislation to the president these days, so the burden of preparedness essentially rests with the administration.
That's got CNN's Fareed Zakaria wondering, "What in the World??"
"What happens if there's another oil spill? Will it be easy and quick to clean up? No. You see, the nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis. So, if there is an explosion, we will watch while the waters of the Gulf Coast get polluted."
Just days before the BP disaster struck last year, Jorge Piñón, the foremost expert on oil drilling in Cuba and where U.S. policy intersects it, and I urged the U.S. to talk to Cuba about oil spill prevention and response. At that time, deepwater exploration in Cuban waters was slated for late 2010. Unfortunately, the BP disaster made our call for prevention and planning with Cuba all the more salient.
Now, after several delays, with a Chinese-built Italian oil rig, the Scarabeo 9, on its way to Cuba, drilling of the first of five exploratory wells in Cuban deep water is set to commence this December.
A spill from this first, easternmost exploratory well to be drilled by the Repsol consortium could be particularly damaging due to its location where the Gulf Stream exits the Gulf of Mexico for the Atlantic. Whereas the BP disaster was somewhat "contained" in the northern Gulf, Piñón tells me to "imagine a fan-shaped spill with the well as the axis." If something were to go wrong on Scarabeo 9, we could see and feel the effects of a major oil spill in Cuban deep water not just in Florida, but far up the Atlantic coast.
If ever there were a moment to put aside political posturing about Cuba, this would be the moment. Will the Obama administration rise to the challenge? Despite a near-total, half century-old trade embargo against Cuba, the president has broad authority to issue regulations that would mandate U.S. preparedness and cooperation with Cuba - and other countries, like Mexico and the Bahamas - to prevent and respond to an oil spill. Given that drilling is set for less than 90 days from now, there's no time to lose.
Here's what Jorge Piñón tells me he'd recommend, all of which can be done within existing executive branch authority:
The High Holidays are the expression of the supreme Jewish belief in reconciliation and every individual’s capacity to recognize his or her mistakes and change for the better. The Cuban government should view Alan Gross’ recent statement as expressing repentance for his unconscious participation in American government sponsored regime change policies that violated Cuban sovereignty. Mr. Gross, an American Jew from Maryland, interested in civil society development was arrested in Dec. 3, 2009 by the Cuban authorities. He had gone to Cuba five times as a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), a private company serving contracts awarded by the Bush Administration under the Cuba program of USAID.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted yesterday by a margin of 20 to 10 (14 Democrats joined 6 Republicans) to ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. Specifically, the amendment offered by Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, prohibits any funds in the bill to be used to enforce rules prohibiting direct wire transfers from Cuban to U.S. banks in payment for authorized U.S. food and medicine exports. The agriculture export community has complained that the prohibition on direct payments makes U.S. goods less competitive because of the additional banking fees and because of the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in demurrage charges when the transaction holds up an entire vessel.
The U.S. International Trade Commission studied agricultural trade with Cuba in 2007 and again in 2009, and determined that U.S. exports could nearly double if restrictions dampening the trade were removed. As it has in previous fiscal years, the bill contains a provision that would clarify the definition of “cash in advance” (one of the two methods of payment authorized in the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act) as cash received prior to the transfer of title and control of the goods (as it was interpreted prior to a 2005 Treasury rule that restricted the definition so much that cash sales came to a halt). None of these details are up on the Appropriations website yet (I listened to the audiocast).
There weren't the usual fireworks - though surely there would have been if Senators Menendez or Rubio had been there. Senator Kirk (R-IL) expressed concerns over opening the U.S. banking system up to Cuba. I’m not clear what the danger is, and Kirk didn’t explain it. I’m also a bit perplexed by how the U.S. seller is put at risk of not being paid when the seller only releases the goods to the buyer upon confirmation of payment? Kirk also spoke passionately about Cuba’s human rights record, and reminded the committee – as did Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland – that Alan Gross remains in prison in Cuba for his involvement in a USAID program. But Senator Moran countered that his amendment wasn’t intended to be a referendum on Cuba but to help U.S. exporters sell products to a nation that will go elsewhere if not to us. Senators Feinstein (Chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee), Johnson (Chairman of the Banking Committee) and Durbin (Chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee) also spoke in favor of the amendment.
It was a refreshing, if small, step forward amidst the he-said-she-said, two-steps-back-and-no-forth by Governor Richardson and his staff and the Cuban Foreign Ministry over who invited whom to talk about what in Havana last week.
When I read last week that former Governor Bill Richardson, also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was back in Havana at the invitation of the Cuban government in order to negotiate the release of Alan Gross, I found the invitation to negotiate a bit odd, but I nonetheless figured Gross would be on his way home by now. If they had invited the former diplomat to Havana to talk about Alan Gross then it seemed he needed to do little more than say the right things. I tried imagining what Richardson might "offer," such as mentioning his intention to personally brief President Obama on his trip and lessons learned in U.S. Cuba policy.
But Richardson's mission has faltered, if not yet failed irretrievably.
The death of Cuban Defense Minister Julio Casas should remind President Raúl Castro of two things: 1) that he has limited time to replace the old guard,and 2) age and health should be key factors in the selection of possible successors. With an eye toward the Cuban Communist Party Conference scheduled for January 2012, those messages amount to a call to rejuvenate the Political Bureau (average age: 67.5) by incorporating younger leaders and seriously considering substitutes for the key positions of first and second secretaries of the Communist Party (PCC, in Spanish).
Along with José Ramón Machado Ventura, General Casas was one of the two closest leaders to Raúl Castro. From a family in the town of Bombi in eastern Cuba, Julio Casas and his brother Senén joined the anti-Batista movement before turning 20. Ever since joining the guerrilla war under Raúl Castro’s command at the second eastern front, Casas became known as a thoughtful but unconditional follower of his boss. Casas was also an inseparable part of the military group formed at the Second Front Guerrilla Headquarters in Micara, from which several of most important leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces would emerge, including current PCC Second Secretary Machado Ventura and three defense ministers following the triumph of the Revolution—Augusto Martínez Sánchez, Raúl Castro, and Julio Casas himself.
DeWayne Wickham, columnist for USA Today, thinks he knows how to get Alan Gross out of jail in Cuba. Gross has been in jail for more than a year and a half, and was convicted in the spring of violating Cuba's sovereignity by distributing sophisticated telecommunications equipment (B-GANs), which are illegal without a permit in Cuba, and especially illegal if bought and paid for under a U.S. law specifically targeting the Cuban government.
In this week's column for USA Today, Wickham suggests trading the Cuban Five, five Cuban agents who infiltrated Cuban exile organizations working to destabilize the island nation in the 1990s. All of the Five received long sentences, and one was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and received a life sentence (two, actually), for what the prosecution alleged was his role in the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. The defense argued he had no role in the shootdown. (The shootdown came after Brothers to the Rescue repeatedly flew into Cuban airspace, overflying the island, including its capital, Havana, several times, dropping leaflets in the months leading up to the shootdown, though the U.S. maintains that the planes did not enter Cuban airspace on that day.)
Whatever you think of the crimes committed by the Five or by Alan Gross - and many will think they are not comparable - our government has a moral obligation to do everything it can to get Americans out of jail in foreign countries, especially if they were essentially working for the U.S. government.
Wickham reminds us that just last year the Obama administration wasted no time in getting 4 Russians who worked for the U.S. and Britain released from prison in exchange for 10 Russian spies rounded up in the U.S.:
Last month I had the opportunity to hear an incredibly informative and expansive presentation on the updating of the Cuban economy, by Dr. Omar Everleny Perez, director of the University of Havana's Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. I found it so interesting that I wanted to share it with colleagues interested in Cuba's ongoing economic transformation, and with colleagues who aren't yet and should be. But the presentation was in Spanish and if you've ever seen my efforts at translation on this blog, you'll know that I have no business translating a large presentation like this! Which is why I am so thrilled to see that the Cuba Study Group has acquired a translated version of Everleny's lecture (minus the graphs), and posted it here on their website.
At least two things make the report a must-read. First, it offers a comprehensive, yet still totally digestible-in-just-8-pages overview of where Cuba's economy was going over the past couple decades and where it must now go. And secondly, it offers constructive, honest criticism of Cuban economic planning where it is due while providing vision for a more sustainable future where it is needed - and does both in as non-political or ideological terms as possible. A few highlights:
The extensive coverage the media has given to an very small number of vocal Cuban-Americans who opposed the celebration of a concert held in Miami by Cuban artist Pablo Milanés stands in stark contrast to the sentiment of the majority of the exile community, which has gone largely unreported. For years, we have seen how the media has sensationalized protests by these (most likely the same) small number of exiles who, blinded by their hatred for the Cuban regime, have worked tirelessly to maintain the status quo in both Washington and Havana.
These Cuban-Americans have every right to feel hurt and even hatred as many suffered greatly at the hand of the Cuban government several decades ago. They came to this country in search of freedom and the right to voice their beliefs and we should respect and protect their right to do so. The media has done more than its share to defend these protestors and their rights. But this small minority of Cuban-Americans does not represent the entire exile community. Unfortunately, headlines such as “Exile groups oppose Cuba musician Pablo Milanes’ Aug. 27 concert in Miami,” do little to report the true diversity of the community and sensationalize the small but vocal minority whose main purpose is to make headlines. More damaging however than the sensationalist headlines and all the attention that is given by the media to defenders of the status quo, is the lack of attention given to the majority of the exile community that has long advocated for and supported greater contact between Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits.
Five years after Fidel Castro’s separation from power, it is essential to examine the role that the former revolutionary leader has played in the current Cuban political system from his convalescence and retirement, and the consequences of this evolution.
The fundamental role of Fidel Castro in the Cuban political system today is two-fold: 1) In terms of government, Fidel Castro is the great counselor, to be consulted on strategic decisions or with respect to the appointment or removal of central leaders, as was the case in the termination of the political careers of his former associates Felipe Perez and Carlos Lage and in the constitution of the new Central Committee at the Sixth Congress, 2) In terms of ideology and international projection, particularly in Latin America, he is a Patriarch of the radical left, advising the new leaders, especially Hugo Chavez, and reflecting on some of the past mistakes made by this political sector (in his Reflections and interviews he has criticized discrimination against homosexuals, hostility toward the market, and Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism that has been repeated in many of the anti-Israeli condemnations by the radical Latin American left).
It is both untrue and a travesty to paint Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as the United States government did in its annual report on the subject last week.
For twenty-nine years, Cuba has appeared on the list, which comes with considerable economic and diplomatic costs. It disqualifies Cuba from economic assistance, punishes Cuba for engaging in legal trade and financial transactions, and deprives Cuba of access to modern technology by way of exports, to name but a few.
Most of all, the list stigmatizes Cuba – not everywhere, but certainly in the United States and elsewhere in the world where our country’s word is respected and the terrorist label stings and stays.
Terror exists in the world; both the U.S. and Cuba have experienced it, and the purpose of the list is to get perpetrators to stop and enlist other nations in a global effort to get them to do so.
This activity took on special meaning for the U.S. after September 11, 2001, but it also should have come with a greater responsibility to use the list seriously and not use it to play domestic politics on a higher and more fraught stage.
Other nations listed in the State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, including Iran and Syria, are said to provide “financial, material, and logistical support” for terror groups. Iran is cited for arming the Taliban in Afghanistan and supporting militants in Iraq who kill American forces; Syria for supplying terrorist groups in Lebanon and Palestinian militants aligned against Israel.
So why is Cuba on the list?