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Juliette Kayyem

Troubled waters

By Juliette Kayyem
Globe Columnist / October 10, 2011

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EVERY SO often, it can be comforting to revisit the US relationship with Cuba. The world seems so chaotic and unsettling — terrorism, two wars, the Arab Spring — it’s enough to create nostalgia for the moral certainties of the Cold War. Through it all, our relations with Cuba have remained the same; simply, we don’t like the government there.

The premise of our policy through all those decades has been to ostracize and alienate the Cuban government, and give safe haven to the lucky Cubans who risk death to make it to US shores; then, seeing the virtues of freedom, Cubans would feel greater pressure to overthrow their Communist leaders. But the policy has failed. The Castro regime has ruled through 11 US presidents.

President Obama has loosened travel restrictions to Cuba somewhat, allowing for greater exchange of researchers and students. But the core policy has remained, mostly because of the political influence of a vocal Cuban exile population.

Until recently, the cost of the failed policy hasn’t been visible. Now it is. Since our policy has been stuck in the 1960s, it has made us more vulnerable to current safety threats. We are simply too outraged at the never-dying Castros to see it.

In a few months, a Spanish oil company will begin exploratory deepwater drilling off the shores of Cuba, a mere 60 miles from the Florida Keys. The company, Repsol, is the first to search for billions of barrels of oil there using a Chinese-made drilling rig. Cuba is expected to lease various ocean blocks to international companies, but none will be US-owned due to continuing economic prohibitions on dealing with the Cuban government.

For those in the 21st century, the story is disturbing. At a time when the search for oil and jobs is a very high priority, US companies will not compete for a potential windfall so close to our coast.

More threatening, however, is the risk to our shores. Because we have no relationship with Cuba, we have no emergency response agreement with Cuba for oil spills. There are no international accords, as we have with Mexico, for notification, information sharing, or providing resources to respond to an environmental catastrophe.

What we do share is the loop current - an area of warm water that travels up from the Caribbean, often through the Florida straits, and heads up the eastern coast to New England. It would make the United States the prime victim of a spill in Cuban waters. If a large accident should occur, the United States would be responsible for managing oil along hundreds of miles of US waters.

Cuba itself is ill-equipped to deal with an oil spill. The State Department, thankfully, will allow oil spill cleanup companies to be temporarily licensed to Cuba should an accident occur. The Coast Guard in Florida is reviewing potential scenarios, knowing that an oiled loop current is far more dangerous to US citizens than the Castro regime. But they are struggling mightily to work within an overall policy that prohibits most forms of engagement.

Hopefully, the 2010 BP oil spill has terrified the industry enough that sheer self-preservation will make oil drillers ultra-cautious. Repsol, for its part, is a publicly traded powerhouse, with operations in 29 countries. But so, of course, was BP.

The real story here is how little these developments seem to matter to our lawmakers. The usual anti-Cuba congressional contingent, many from Florida, wrote a letter to the president of Repsol, expressing their serious concern with Repsol’s plans to “partner’’ with the “Castro regime.’’ The operations will provide “direct financial benefit to the Castro dictatorship.’’

That’s the only concern? Their condemnation of Fidel and President Raul Castro leaves no room to address, with either Repsol or Cuba, the preventative and response efforts that ought to occur should something terrible happen a short boat ride away from their constituents.

The letter was sent Sept. 27, 2011. It could have been drafted in 1961. There may be something soothing in holding onto Cold War principles when the world seems so mixed up. Or maybe its just blinding.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.