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Cuba, Bush, and the Mexico 'No-no'

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America may be addicted to Middle Eastern oil, as President Bush argued in his State of the Union speech last month, but his addiction to the hard line on Cuba is even greater.

How else can one explain the outrageous action by the U.S. Treasury Department to kick 16 Cuban nationals (including senior representatives of the Cuban ministry that regulates energy production) out of the Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton in Mexico City who were scheduled to meet American energy executives just to discuss drilling for oil in Cuba?

Make no mistake; Cuba's got oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated "a mean of 4.6 billion barrels of undiscovered oil" along with natural gas and natural gas liquids in a study it published in 2004. Our economic competitors agree. I have toured Canadian oil rigs and seen Chinese rigs doing horizontal drilling into the waters off the island's north coast. They, along with Spanish and Indian firms, have already bid for some of the 59 blocks set aside by Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico for off-shore exploration - and they're paying the Cuban government millions in cash for the privilege.

This is why our unilateral embargo against Cuba can't work. No other country on Earth observes it. Foreign firms partner up in joint ventures with Cuba to explore for oil - just as they do in bio-tech, tourism, agriculture, and the like - and it is they who will reap the oil dividend, not us.

As Castro's coffers fill with foreign investment, U.S. oil firms, some of the best in the world, are locked out. It is our interests - our companies, our profits, our workers, and our future - that alone are punished by maintaining this archaic embargo against the Cuban government.

The Bush administration ordered Sheraton to evict the Cubans because, the Treasury Department argues, providing them rooms and services in a third country violates the prohibition against engaging in financial transactions with Cuba.

Treasury technically has the authority to interpret the law in this manner, but as Kirby Jones, who organized the energy meeting, said "This came as a total surprise since I have been involved in nine previous such meetings - some held at other Starwood properties in Westin Hotels - and never has this issue ever been raised before."

So where might this exotic view of the law take us in the future? Does this apply just to Sheraton, just to Mexico, just to meetings between Cuban nationals and U.S. energy businesses, or is Treasury creating a broader precedent?

The U.S. business community better consider this: Just imagine if every U.S.-owned hotel, restaurant, or other entity operating anyplace around the world (and there are plenty) had to police a restriction against Cubans and Americans interacting or were liable under sanctions for serving a Coke or Big Mac to a Cuban in Caracas, Cologne, or Canberra? [Yes, Miami, some Cubans do travel abroad.] It would be an enforcement nightmare, and yet that is precisely what Treasury is signaling that the law means today.

And who interprets the U.S. embargo against Cuba? The Treasury Department - and its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Members of Congress like Howard Berman (D-CA), Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Max Baucus (D-MT) argue that OFAC is draining time and resources enforcing the useless Cuba embargo, when higher priority items, like stopping the flow of funds to Al Qaeda, are perilously under-funded. After a botched play like this, who can argue that point?

While Bush and the Treasury Department tilt against the Castro windmill, life proceeds apace. The energy meeting in Mexico City took place anyhow; they just moved it to the Mexican-owned Mision Colon Reforma Hotel. The Mexican government is seriously considering shuttering the Sheraton, even permanently, for violating Mexican laws against discrimination and consumer fraud. The Cuban government has another talking point to persuade its people that U.S. foreign policy is unreasonable and discriminatory. And we continue to fill up our cars with gas from regimes - not 90 miles away like Cuba - but thousands of miles away, like Saudi Arabia. Thus is the state of our union.

And pity poor Sheraton. Its website says this: "Sheraton's Service Promise ensures you'll have a great stay, or we'll make it up to you." Not sure they can make that offer to their Cuban guests anymore, thanks to President Bush and the Treasury.

Sarah Stephens is Director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign, which fights for the rights of all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.