February 1, 2011
Tomas Bilbao, Sarasota Herald Tribune
News last week that French telecom Alcatel-Lucent SA has begun laying a 1,600-kilometer underwater fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba is the latest evidence of how U.S. sanctions toward Cuba undermine U.S. national interests and push the communist island into the open arms of our adversaries and continue Cuban citizen’s dependence on the regime. By focusing solely on isolating the Cuban government and denying it resources, the U.S. has, ironically, only isolated itself from the realities at play inside Cuba and alienated its allies. Unfortunately, legislation proposed last week by Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan only continues this counterproductive pattern and, in this case, puts Florida’s industry and environment at greater risk.
Despite positive steps taken by the Obama Administration, this problem continues, as illustrated by the fiber optic cable currently being laid between Venezuela and Cuba. In April of 2009, President Obama announced changes to U.S. sanction programs toward Cuba designed to increase the free flow of information to the Cuban people and expand communication links between the two countries. The measures were much-needed steps in the right direction. The new rules expanding family travel and remittances have already proven an invaluable tool at facilitating needed processes of national reconciliation, reducing Cuban’s dependence on the regime, building goodwill with allies in the region and most importantly, empowering Cuba’s civil society. Unfortunately however, the changes to telecommunication sanctions fell short of the President’s stated goals. A report issued by the Cuba Study Group in collaboration with Council of the Americas and Brookings Institution in July 2010 detailed the reasons why the April 2009 changes to Cuba telecom sanctions must be clarified and expanded and laid out specific recommendations for doing so.
Today, approximately a year and a half after the White House announced changes intended to allow U.S. telecom companies to enter into agreements with Cuban entities, not a single agreement has been made. The slow grind of U.S. bureaucratic review of Miami-based TeleCuba’s request for permission to lay a fiber optic cable to Cuba cost it (and the U.S.) the opportunity and sent Cuban officials shopping for more convenient partners. They found them in Alcatel-Lucent SA and Hugo Chavez. So, while Hugo Chavez works to limit Internet freedoms in Venezuela, U.S. sanctions have kept American companies from beating the autocratic leader to the punch.
Now, some U.S. lawmakers want to continue this counterproductive behavior by forcing reputable oil firms out of Cuba. Last week, U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan introduced a bill in the House that would authorize the U.S. Interior Secretary to deny leases to firms that do business with any nation currently facing U.S. trade sanctions. Mr. Buchanan sites the potential threats to Florida’s tourism industry and environment as his motivation. If passed, the legislation would allow the Secretary of the Interior to deny leases to Spanish energy giant Repsol and Norway’s Statoil, who are leading a consortium of international oil companies looking to drill for oil in Cuban waters. Just as in the case of the fiber optic cable now being laid from Venezuela, Buchanan’s proposed legislation would punish reputable firms such as Repsol, forcing Cuban leaders into agreements with parties with questionable reputations and safety records. In essence, Mr. Buchanan’s noble efforts to protect Florida’s coastlines by sanctioning reputable firms investing in Cuban waters will actually result in greater risks for the State’s natural resources. In contrast, a bipartisan commission set up by President Obama following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which was co-chaired by former Senator Bob Graham, recommended to a Senate Energy Committee hearing last week that the U.S. work with Cuba and Mexico to reach an agreement on tougher off-shore oil drilling standards. The report recommended: “The U.S. objectives should be to prevent drilling by companies unwilling or unprepared to meet the high safety standards essential to extracting oil and gas resources responsibly and to have a verification process to ensure compliance.”
U.S. lawmakers should learn from the missed opportunity illustrated by the fiber optic cable now en route from Venezuela to Cuba, and refocus U.S. policy from one that pushes Cuban leaders into the arms of the likes of Hugo Chavez and firms with questionable practices toward one that protects U.S. interests and puts it in a position to influence events inside the island.