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    Will Offshore Oil Lubricate US-Cuba Relations?
    Editor's Desk | Casey Research | October 28, 2011 2:02 pm

    Courtesy of Casey Research

    One of Spain's largest oil companies, Repsol, is gearing up to spud a
    deep, offshore well in Cuban waters, just 60 miles from the Florida
    Keys. A huge rig is still en route to the site from Singapore, and as it
    draws closer to its destination the zealous opposition from Floridian
    politicians who rely on the Cuban expatriate vote gets louder.

    They argue that the well should not be allowed to proceed because it
    violates the embargo and on a deeper level, that any oil found would
    prop up the Cuban regime. The first claim is incorrect – it does not
    violate the embargo as there are no American companies involved; but the
    second claim deserves closer inspection. Indeed, oil experts say Cuba
    may have as much as 20 billion barrels of oil in its as-yet untapped
    portion of the Gulf of Mexico, though the estimate from the US
    Geological Survey is considerably more modest, pegging potential
    reserves at 5 billion barrels.

    And yes, finding and developing oil resources in Cuban waters would
    provide a major boost to the country's struggling economy and would help
    to reduce its total dependence on oil-rich, leftist ally Venezuela.
    Fidel Castro's close ally Hugo Chavez currently dispatches 120,000
    barrels of oil a day to Cuba on very favorable financing terms. However,
    the arrangement is heavily dependent on the friendship between
    octogenarian Castro and cancer-stricken Chavez… hardly a recipe for
    permanence. Cuba's oil contracts with Repsol and various other
    international partners probing its waters call for Cuba to get 60% of
    the oil, so a few good wells would make a marked difference for the
    Caribbean nation.

    But the more pressing issue is proximity. If this well were to blow –
    like the Macondo well did – the two American companies that provide
    blowout-containment services to deepwater drillers in the Gulf of Mexico
    would not be allowed to come to its aid. Yes, it is possible to obtain
    exemptions from the embargo, but spill responses are based on a simple
    premise: Everything has to be on standby, ready to go. While US
    officials say there is a longstanding practice of providing licenses
    (embargo exemptions) to address environmental challenges in Cuban
    waters, and Americans have previously provided booms, skimmers,
    dispersants, pumps, and other equipment to respond to a spill, obtaining
    exemptions from international embargoes does not fit the ready-to-go

    The Repsol well will sit just 60 miles from the Marquesas Keys, an
    uninhabited group of islands near Key West in an area of strong, 4-6
    mile-per-hour currents that come from the Gulf, shoot through the
    Florida Straits, and then churn northward up the Atlantic Coast. It
    would take only a few days for an oil spill to reach the Keys. In fact,
    Repsol's well will be twice as close to US shores as drillers in
    American waters are allowed to operate.

    Any angst over the situation should not be directed toward Repsol, as
    the Spanish company has done nearly everything it can to placate
    American concerns. The company has offered US agencies an opportunity to
    inspect the drilling vessel and its equipment before it enters Cuban
    waters, and Repsol officials have stated publicly that in carrying out
    its Cuba work it will adhere to US regulations and the highest industry
    standards. The only thing Repsol has not done is concede to demands from
    some US Congresspeople to walk away from the project, which the
    politicians described in a letter to Repsol as a venture that "endangers
    the environment and enriches the Cuban tyranny."

    However, Repsol is inclined to be accommodating because it is a publicly
    traded company. It is the only such company operating in non-American
    Gulf waters – the others operating or considering operating in Cuba's
    Gulf waters are primarily national oil companies. The United States'
    sphere of influence over these state-owned, national oil companies is
    far, far less; in many cases, American desires have no bearing on these
    entities… and any effort to exert influence over them immediately raises
    questions of sovereign immunity.

    So, while Repsol's case is at the forefront for the moment, it seems
    that the US government needs to pay more attention to these national
    companies and attempt to formulate a way to engage in their exploration
    process. It's a complicated, sensitive arena, incorporating issues like
    transboundary compensation for oil pollution damages, the role of
    international oil pollution liability conventions, and recovering costs
    when one country provides most of the spill response and clean-up assets.

    But there are quite a few national oil companies interested in Cuba.
    Repsol is working in a consortium with Norway's Statoil and a unit of
    India's ONGC. The partners plan to drill one or two wells; once they are
    complete, the rig will pass to Malaysia's state-owned oil company,
    Petronas, and then on to another ONGC unit, ONBC Videsh, both of which
    have also leased offshore Cuban blocks. Brazilian state oil company
    Petrobras is also developing plans to explore its Cuban blocks.

    The multinational face of exploration in Cuba's waters is a good
    representation of the support Cuba has received from the rest of the
    world. Indeed, every year for the past 19 years, and soon for an
    almost-guaranteed twentieth time, the United Nations General Assembly
    has overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning the US embargo. Every
    year, something like 187 of 189 nations appeal to the United States to
    end the embargo, with (usually) only Israel voting with the US.

    Almost no one else supports the embargo, and it is time to assess
    whether it is still in the US's best interests.

    The embargo on Cuba represents the most comprehensive set of economic
    sanctions the US imposes on any nation in the world. The goal has always
    been to make the Cuban people suffer so much that they would tear down a
    government that was at one point a Cold-War security threat. The US has:
    imposed sharp limits on Cuba's access to American food, medicines, and
    visitors; banned almost all other business activity; used sanctions to
    stop third countries from trading with Cuba; blocked Cuba's access to
    high-technology goods; and even siphoned off some of its most promising
    thinkers by giving Cubans incentives to emigrate and persuading its
    highly trained doctors to defect.

    None of this has, of course, caused an uprising, let alone broken the
    back of the Cuban system. It has been a generation since the Cold War
    ended, since the Soviet Union fell, and since the US intelligence
    community concluded that Cuba posed no threat to American security. Why
    does the embargo still stand? Well, for several reasons, two of the
    clearest being opposing communism in general and maintaining political
    support from the large Cuban expat community. However, another reason
    may be a lack of data. There is no formal mechanism within the US
    government to monitor the impact of the embargo on economic and social
    rights in Cuba; nor is there a process to assess the impacts of the
    embargo on the United States.

    Without a way to gather this information, there are tough questions that
    remained unanswered. Do the sanctions backfire and take away from
    everyday Cubans the prospect for leading more prosperous and independent
    lives? Is the embargo damaging US standing in Latin America? Do the
    sanctions cost the US jobs for workers, markets, profits for businesses,
    or liberties for American travelers?

    These questions have lingered for years, but with Fidel Castro having
    passed the reins over to his slightly more liberal younger brother Raul,
    changes are afoot in Cuba that make these questions more pressing.
    Adding all the new interest in Cuba's deepwater oil potential to the mix
    only increases the pressure.

    Raul Castro took over the presidency in 2008, and his goal is to have
    35% of the economy privatized by 2015. In April the Cuban Communist
    Party approved 311 decrees designed to meet that goal, though to date
    only a few have passed into law. Those that have been enacted are mild
    relative to the bigger picture of creating a private sector.
    Nevertheless, they represent dramatic change for Cubans, who have not
    been allowed to buy or sell vehicles or real estate for fifty years. Now
    they can.

    For the first time since the early years of Castro's 1959 revolution,
    private individuals in retail services, agriculture, and construction
    are allowed to hire employees, even though there remains an article in
    the Cuban Constitution that says one's property and equipment "cannot be
    used to obtain earnings from the exploitation of the labor of others."

    Over the next five years the regime intends to lay off up to a million
    public sector workers – no less than 10% of its workforce. The food
    rationing system, on which many Cubans rely daily, is also set to be
    phased out. The goals are clear – to reduce the state payroll, boost
    productivity (especially in the agricultural sector), and nourish the
    private sector – even if the timeline and plans for dealing with the
    fallout are far from clear.

    Cuban authorities are careful to depict this restructuring as upgrading
    the revolution, not forsaking it. As one political analyst said, the
    Cuban government is trying to "let the economic genie out of the bottle
    while keeping the political genie in." It's a tough act. And the fact is
    that the regime can no longer afford to finance the socialist ideas upon
    which it was founded. The question is: Which way will it turn?

    If reforms are too limited and private enterprise remains too restricted
    to flourish, nothing much really changes, aside from a few aspects of
    the current black market becoming legal. At the other end of the
    spectrum is rapid and rampant capitalism, with all of the debt and
    accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few that today are such clear
    downsides of free-market economies.

    The Goldilocks answer is somewhere in between, positioning Cuba as a
    miniature China with a mixed economy, the state holding tight grip over
    some sectors but loosening control over others. The state will almost
    certainly retain its grip over mining, oil, sugar, health care, and
    tourism, cumulatively a large chunk of the country's economic strength.

    Nevertheless, even this partial transition to capitalism offers some
    good economic opportunities to the US, if it were to open those avenues.
    The embargo may be aimed at restricting the Cuban regime so harshly that
    it fails, but it is also preventing the US from even encouraging, let
    alone participating in, a more modern Cuba. In terms of the Gulf, the
    embargo restricts US opportunities to provide exploration expertise to a
    developing nation and to share in the spoils of that work, which could
    be another, much-needed, convenient source of oil, while also
    hamstringing the US's ability to protect its own waters.

    Courtesy of Casey Research

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