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Environmentalists urge greater U.S.-Cuba cooperation
CubaNews / June 2010

By Larry Luxner

Even though tar balls have yet to wash up on the beaches of Cuba, the island is bracing for the worst — and U.S. experts say now is the time for urgent bilateral cooperation to confront the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dan Whittle, Cuba program director at the Environmental Defense Fund, told CubaNews June 24 that while surface oil is still being circulated primarily in the northern Gulf of Mexico — posing a threat to the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — “the underwater plume is what Cubans are really worried about, because it’s still unknown where the plume is traveling and because the ecological damage to corals could be well beyond what anyone knows.”

As of press time, an oil sheen has been reported in Cuba’s economic exclusion zone.

For the past six weeks, Whittle said, Cuban experts have been running their own oceano-graphy models, using data available on the Internet, and that they’ve been accurately tracking the disaster.

“There’s no real news that it’s an imminent threat to Cuba,” he told us, “but it still appears that at some point, the oil will eventually make its way through the Florida Straits and along the Cuban coast” — especially northwestern Pinar del Río province.

Whittle spoke at a panel last month in Washington organized by the New America Foundation. He urged the Obama administration to relax regulations that prevent U.S. and Cuban experts from working together.

“For half a century, a political gulf has divided our two countries,” said Whittle. “Finding ways to collaborate to respond to the BP oil disaster is in our mutual interest —to help Cuba prepare and respond to the worst, and to develop a strong foundation for the future to protect our shared environment. It is time for a pragmatic approach.”

Unfortunately, he said, the political differences between Washington and Havana mean there are no official mechanisms to communicate and cooperate at this time.

“Most at risk is the ecologically rich northwest coast of Cuba, home to coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests. These ecosystems are breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for fish, sea turtles, sharks and manatees,” said Whittle. “At the same time, these systems protect coastal communities from hurricanes and storm surges. Like the U.S., this disaster threatens important economic activity and livelihoods from commercial fishing to ecotourism.”

In May, attorney Robert Muse co-authored with Jorge Piñón a report for the Brookings Institution entitled “Coping With the Next Spill: Why U.S.-Cuba Environmental Cooperation is Critical.”

In it, Muse argues that setting preemptive administrative rules facilitating the free flow of U.S. specialists and equipment to Cuba isn’t only sound policy; it would also — given the importance to Florida’s economy of the Gulf — be good politics.

“The Obama administration, irrespective of the current embargo, has the power to license the sale, lease or loan of emergency relief and reconstruction equipment to Cuba following an oil spill,” he said. “It also has authority to license U.S. citizens to perform emergency response and subsequent reconstruction ser-vices in Cuba in the wake of such a disaster.”

New York lawyer Tony Martínez is a foreign policy adviser to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, formerly U.S. energy secretary.

“We do not know if or when oil will reach Cuban shores and what its overall impact would be there,” Martínez told CubaNews. “That said, oil exploration in Cuban waters by U.S. oil companies — even when permitted by changes in current law — would still be tempered by real environmental concerns.” He added: “No one in their right mind is going to allow an oil company to drill in these waters again without added contingencies and new mechanisms in place that actually work, if they will be allowed at all.”

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