Cuba: 53 Years After the Revolution

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the February 15, 2012 blog post by Ambassador John Price


On February 6, 2012, I joined thirty former U.S. Ambassadors on a week’s trip to Cuba, traveling under a U.S. Treasury Department license. The instructions required, “a full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.” “[T]he predominant portion of our activities may not be with senior Party or government officials.”

Our meeting schedule included the Administrator and doctors at the Hermanos Ameijeiras Clinical Surgical Hospital; the Vice-Chancellor, professors and students at the University of Havana; the Advisor to the Minister of Tourism; the Archbishop of Havana, His Eminence Jaime Lucas Cardinal Ortega y Aramillo; Mrs. Adela Dworin the President of Temple Beth-Shalom; the Director of Exploration of Cuba Petroleom (Cupet); and H.E. Mr. Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Minister of Foreign Affairs. The scheduled meeting with the President of the National Assembly was canceled.

In addition we had a briefing from John Caulfield, Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The modern seven story building that housed the mission had no markings on the outside to indicate it serves as the U.S. Embassy–not even an American flag flying. Notably there were security guards around the perimeter of the gated complex, keeping a watchful eye on the passerby’s.

Between meetings we visited Old Havana, a large farmers market where produce is sold by private producers, and a large art market where over three-hundred artists sell their works. With time permitting we visited Ernest Hemingway’s restored house located a short distance outside of Havana.

Never did we feel threatened or uncomfortable. In fact most of the people we encountered were very engaging. When told we were from the United States, they beamed and offered handshakes of friendship. Cuba hosts over 2.5 million tourists annually; reportedly, almost four-hundred thousand come from the United States.

Although most workers average only $25 per month, they seem to get by. There were no homeless people, and everyone seemed to have a roof over their head. Those who worked in service areas, such as hotels and restaurants, or owned vintage taxis, made more with the tips they earned.

I first met Vicki Huddleston at a Chiefs of Mission Conference in 2004, when she was the Ambassador to Mali. Huddleston a career diplomat, with great experience, had served in several African countries, in South America and in the Caribbean region. She was the Principal Officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002. In her article regarding the “Embargo’s usefulness…” I found her observations to be as germane today as they were in 2008.

“If U.S. policy can deal with Cuba – not as a domestic political issue – but as one sovereign state to another”, she noted, “then we will resume official diplomatic relations with the exchange of ambassadors…” Only then can we begin to have meaningful bilateral discussions on security matters, immigration issues, human rights, rule of law, freedom of the press, and open-market access embracing the free enterprise system.

The healthcare system in Cuba is currently impeded by the embargo, lacking medical equipment, component parts, antibiotics and other drugs used for basic medication. Even though Cuba has a number of trading partners, import costs for these desperately needed items could dramatically be reduced for this small island nation, just ninety miles from our shores.

On March 30, 2011, former President Jimmy Carter, in a television interview, during a visit to Cuba said, “In the future, I hope that trade and travel between the two countries will be unrestricted and that the U.S. blockade will be completely eliminated. It not only affects the Cuban government, but also the Cuban people, who are ultimately the most severely hit by it.”

Today, oil may become the equalizer. Repsol, the Spanish oil company has been given exploration rights to drill in the vast offshore ocean basin, in Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), just sixty-five miles from our shores. Lease agreements have been signed for offshore drilling blocks with six nations, in the North Cuba Basin. A self-contained drilling platform built by the Chinese is currently in place, with Repsol drilling the first well. The oil bearing formation is the same as in the productive Gulf of Mexico region. Under an agreement made during the Carter administration, the United States, Mexico and Cuba have access rights to the oil within their respective EEZ boundaries. With estimates ranging between 15 to 20 billion barrels of oil in this region, Cuba could become heir to as much as 5 to 7 billion barrels. That would make this small island nation independent from the need to trade or cooperate with us.

I believe we missed an opportunity to establish bilateral relations with Cuba, and begin a more meaningful diplomatic relationship. We will also miss the economic benefit of their oil, so close to our shore. To make matters worse we have the technology to prevent oil well “blowout” problems, but have yet to give the approval to sell this technology to Cuba, which could become another oil-spill disaster waiting to happen. Washington also has not authorized oil-spill response experts to work with Cupet, as a result of the existing embargo. The laws surrounding the embargo, limit to 10 percent any U.S. components for such an oil rig, which would include the Blowout Preventer, a crucial component.

Cuba, as our neighbor cannot be ignored any longer, or boxed-in. I agree with Ambassador Huddleston that the “Embargo’s usefulness has run its course.” I would hope that the year 2012 could be the beginning of a new engagement of Cuba, with meaningful bilateral relations moving towards a peaceful co-existence. As Cuba enters the Global Economic Stage, the free enterprise system, including rule of law and human rights practices will ultimately prevail over the current socialist system.

Cuba will evolve into an open-market economy, with more liberties, as we have seen in Russia and China; with the Cuban people’s lives improving in the process.