President Barack Obama's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba already have helped tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans re-establish family ties and put the two nations on course to improve regional trade and security. Now the changes are poised to provide another direct benefit: an agreement between Cuba and the United States to cooperate if an oil spill threatens the Gulf of Mexico.
The two nations are said to be negotiating an agreement that calls for a joint response to any oil spill in the gulf. It comes as Cuba is looking to drill offshore in the coming months, now that Havana is in partnership with Angola's state-run petroleum production company. As the Tampa Bay Times' Paul Guzzo reported this week, the United States is said to have approved a draft agreement and forwarded it to Cuba for its endorsement. The U.S. State Department would not comment.
With Cuba only 90 miles from the Florida coast, this move would be a victory for thawing relations and particularly for the health and economy of the Sunshine State. Oil spills know no borders, and having the United States at the ready could bring a wealth of manpower, equipment and technical skills in the critical early stages that could enable the cleanup teams to prevent a real catastrophe.
It's worth remembering that for all of their resources, the United States and oil giant BP — whose leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana in 2010, killing 11 workers and releasing more than 130 million gallons of oil — took weeks marshalling the necessary means to contain the underwater spill. And this tragedy occurred, as a government report later noted, despite the rig having a blowout preventer. The response eventually involved some 9,000 vessels, 100 aircraft and 50,000 emergency responders. The U.S. Coast Guard mobilized about 14 percent of its entire workforce. And still the United States accepted 22 offers of assistance from 12 countries and international organizations, from Mexico and Norway to the European Union. With a spill, time is of the essence, and it is in America's self-interest to help its neighbors.
A bilateral agreement would improve the capabilities for both countries, reduce their response times and limit the economic and environmental damage that a spill would cause. The accord would also build confidence as the United States and Cuba seek common ground on tougher issues, from trade to human rights. Congress needs to end the U.S. economic embargo for America to fully engage with the communist-run island. But this smaller step has tangible value for anyone living near the Gulf Coast.