May 13, 2011 |

CUBA CENTRAL NewsBlast: Oil in the Gulf; Changes in Cuba, but not in Obama’s talking points

As we put the finishing touches on this week’s NewsBlast, an important meeting was wrapping up in the Caribbean.  This meeting dealt with Cuba’s plans in the coming months to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and what happened there says a lot about the state of U.S.-Cuba relations (which is so often a state of denial).

The event was hosted by the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), a serious-minded trade industry group that represents the global oil and gas drilling industry, and featured serious discussions about how the Cubans are thinking about safety and regulation as they prepare to drill.

To its credit, the Obama administration gave IADC permission to bring Fidel llizastigui Perez, Process Safety/Risk Management Specialist, Office for Environment and Nuclear Safety Regulation (ORASEN) along with a team of Cuban colleagues to the event.  This paved the way for the first dialogue of its kind outside of Cuba with broad participation and discussion of key issues.

Dr. Lee Hunt, the chief executive of IADC, talked to Cuba Central this afternoon about the quality of the Cuban participants.  He said, “We were impressed by the level of preparation and thoroughness of the Cuban regulatory body.  They are searching for the best of the best regulations internationally and incorporating these practices in their own regulations.  They are also asking their operators to indicate how much of the new U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management drilling safety rules they are incorporating on a voluntary basis.”

One attendee told us that even the skeptics about Cuba need to understand they are taking the environmental issues seriously.

That said, there was one troubling piece of news out of the conference.  According to one participant – and after checking the registration information – we are able to report that no one from responsible agencies in the U.S. government – no one from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, or the U.S. Geological Survey – attended the conference.

This matters.  Thanks to the courage and foresight of the IADC, the Cubans and other attendees did discuss issues concerning blowout prevention, responses to spills, containment of environmental damage, and clean up.  According to one participant – Dan Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund – the conference produced “really valuable dialogue, good will among the Cubans, the industry, and the environmentalists in attendance, and significant new information about Cuba’s regulatory approach and the strength of its standards.”

Industry can play a leadership role, as IADC is demonstrating.  But to protect the safety and environmental quality of the Gulf, a broad U.S. government plan is needed.

Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, published a study that lays out a series of ten steps that a serious and determined U.S. government should take to address the challenge of Cuba’s imminent plans to drill and reverse our nation’s current unwillingness to plan for this event.

Our recommendations included unilateral actions the administration can take without seeking new authority in areas such as licensing, enforcement and information sharing; cooperation with Cuba principally on environmental approaches; new authorities that would permit U.S. firms to join in the exploration and fully participate for environmental safety; and, perhaps most important, a different approach toward Cuba that recognizes its sovereignty and how an economically stable Cuba best serves U.S. interests.

Cuba won’t know for months or years whether the oil that it and its foreign partners are seeking will be transformative for Cuba’s economy.  But the challenges facing the U.S. begin – as we argued in February – as soon as the first drill bit penetrates the sea bed in the Gulf.

As we report this week, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida seems to understand:  It’s time for the U.S. to engage on this issue.  We hope that realization inspires the administration to act.

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At times we’re tempted to hope that President Obama isn’t speaking for his administration when he talks about Cuba.

Last night, in an interview broadcast by WLTV, the president said, “I would welcome real change from the Cuban government … For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we’ve got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”

As we’ve reported, the president has used these ideas in interviews with Spanish and Miami-based media before:

On October 19, 2010, President Obama told a gathering of Hispanic media at the White House: “I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we’ve not yet seen the full results of these promises.”

In an interview with Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald on March 23, 2011, the president said again: “The Cuban government made some gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some market-based economies with small business opportunities. (But) we haven’t seen as much follow-through as we would like.”

To some extent, the president is correct.  After all, our continuing strategy to coerce Cuba into ending its political system by the force of U.S. sanctions and diplomatic isolation has failed under the Obama administration just as it did during the ten presidencies that preceded it.   It also does need to be said that the president has made some adjustments in policy – relating specifically to travel and the right to provide Cubans with financial support through remittances – that were long overdue.

But to say that the changes taking place in Cuba today are not far-reaching enough to merit a meaningful U.S. response (as Secretary Clinton also said in a speech this week) is either to speak from a stale set of talking points or to misunderstand the scope of the economic reforms that Cuba’s government is putting into place.

Cuba’s government is shrinking the size of the state, eliminating subsidies and social benefits, planning to lay off hundreds of thousands of employees, and legalizing new private sector activities so Cubans can open small businesses and hire their own workers.  Reforms announced this week will pave the way for Cubans to buy and sell their own homes, enabling them to accumulate capital, and to travel abroad as tourists.

We don’t know where the reform process will ultimately go or whether the changes being adopted now will actually put the country on firm footing economically.

But we do know from having interviewed Cubans across the political spectrum during our recent trips to Cuba that they view these changes as real, and we think it’s important for the President to do so as well.

Our country and Cuba have serious business to discuss – not just about protecting the Gulf of Mexico from risks associated with oil drilling as important as that is, but also about our differing views of political and human rights, the continued captivity of Alan Gross, and the on-going programs to undermine Cuba’s government that put Mr. Gross in jeopardy, to name just a few.

You can’t have those kinds of discussions without being able or willing to engage, and the discussions won’t work if the words we use are simply not up to date with the facts as they exist.

For more about this week in Cuba news, click here.