Is Cuba endangered by the BP Oil Spill?

Question: We want to come to Cuba this summer but are unsure as to the latest information regarding the US oil spillage.  We would be visiting Varadero and Havana at the end of July. Do you have any information?

Answer: The oil spewing from the April 20 explosion of the BP drilling well —with existing and potentially dire consequences— has put the whole Gulf of Mexico, the coasts of Mexico, the coast of the United States and the coasts of Cuba in danger, as well as threatening other Caribbean nations such as The Bahamas.

In the third week of May, Venezuela sent a team of experts to Cuba to advise Cuba on how to handle a potential oil spread and help with preparations should the Gulf of Mexico oil slicks reach its shores.

Around the same time, a U.S. State Department spokesman told the Associated Press that U.S. and Cuban officials were holding “working level” talks on how to respond to the massive oil eruption which, according to latest reports, is now dumping some 2.52 million gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico. (In the U.S. a barrel of petroleum is defined as 42 U.S. gallons or 159 liters, so 2.52 million gallons is equivalent to 60,000 barrels or 9.54 million litres per day.)

Scientists, both in the U.S. and Cuba, have expressed increasing worry that the oil will get caught up in the so-called Loop Current (also known as the Gulf Stream), a fast ribbon of warm water that begins in the Gulf of Mexico, wraps around Florida and eventually makes its way to the Georges Bank, off the coast of Massachusetts and one of the world’s most productive fishing areas. Some say the current could draw the crude through the Keys and then up Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

On the Cuban end, the concern is that if the oil enters the Loop Current, Cuba’s north coast – some 775 kilometers that include many pristine white beaches – could also be endangered. The Florida Strait is very narrow and the local effects of wind and current could bring the oil across the strait to Cuba. In addition to ruining beaches and marine habitats in several U.S. states and Caribbean nations, some researchers at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science have told the Associated Press that there’s also a possibility that the oil could flow directly to Cuba’s northern shore before flowing back up to the Florida Keys.

Towards the end of May, U.S. scientists said that a light oil sheen has already entered the Loop Current.

Also at the end of May, Wayne Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., an expert in Cuban affairs, and former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1979-82), was in Cuba for several days with a group of Texas legislators.  Although the main reason for this visit was to discuss defense against hurricanes – Cuba having an excellent civil defense system and record (only 30 deaths in the last ten years) – the first topic of conversation was BP’s oil eruption in the Gulf.

During a meeting with the Texas delegation, the Cuban Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations said that initially the eruption didn’t worry Cuba, as they assumed that the US and BP would cap and contain it quickly.  But Cuba’s concerns have grown, especially as information now indicates that the expanding pool of oil is on the point of being caught up in the Loop Current.

The Vice-Minister underscored that Cuba is ready to share pertinent information and to cooperate against the danger.  All the more so, as hurricane season has now started (June 1st) and has thus become a looming part of the oil spread threat.  Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US and Cuba’s own Meteorological Institute have predicted a very dangerous hurricane season.  Thus, even once the flow of oil is halted, an immense pool still remains in the Gulf – and hurricane winds could affect its dispersion.

So now one has to think of dealing not just with an oil explosion problem, but with an oil eruption-hurricane problem. And given that topping the eruption is still well out of sight, it’s a problem that won’t go away in the near future.

What this means to Cuba’s key tourist attraction – the hot sun and white sands of Varadero – is still anyone’s guess.  At the present time, there are no signs of oil – either the little precursory oil balls or spume – in the larger vicinity of the waters off Varadero and Havana.  However, visitors would be well advised to monitor the situation closely, as the longer the oil blow-out remains untapped, the greater the potential danger for all.