By Marc Frank | Reuters
HAVANA - For Cuba, it was a chance to link trade and a trade-off.
But the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana was not amused.
Cuba wants U.S. investment in its emerging oil industry and offers the prospect of ample nickel supplies close to the United States—if Washington ends the four-decade-old embargo against the country—Cuba’s top oil and central bank officials told the representatives of 173 U.S. companies, who gathered in Havana this week to sell agricultural products.
With this sales pitch, the Cuban officials took advantage of the chance to speak directly to American business people.
“We are open to U.S. oil companies interested in exploration, production and services,” Juan Fleites Melo, vice president of state oil monopoly Cubapetroleo, told the U.S. companies’ representatives on Thursday.
His invitation came on the third day of a four-day event during which $65 million in food sales agreements have been signed.
The United States permits agricultural sales to Cuba for cash under a 2000 exception to its long-standing trade embargo.
The two countries do not have diplomatic relations, but maintain lower-level Interests Sections, or diplomatic presences that do not have the same status as embassies, in each other’s capitals.
, the Spanish major oil company, would drill the first well in Gulf of Mexico waters this May, Fleites said. He added that Cuba currently produced 50 percent of its fuel requirements, or the equivalent of 80,000 barrels per day.
“We have leased 10 of our 53 blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, but expect many companies to sign if Repsol finds oil,” Fleites said.
“There is no reason U.S. companies shouldn’t take advantage and compete so close to home,” he added.
Central Bank President Francisco Soberon told the Americans on Wednesday that “the United States would have less than 90 miles away the world’s second-largest nickel reserve,” if the embargo were lifted. He said ports and airports would open to U.S. companies and trade would boom.
Cuba is one of the world’s largest producers of nickel plus cobalt at 71,600 tonnes last year. Nickel is used to make stainless steel and alloys for construction and industrial uses. Nickel oxide and cobalt oxide are used in the manufacturing of lithium batteries.
A growing business lobby in the United States has been pushing for a further loosening of sanctions on Cuba, despite the Bush administration’s strong support of them.
James Cason, head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, released a statement on Wednesday blasting Cuba’s use of trade to lobby Washington.
“The Cuban government is seeking to manipulate the U.S. political process by linking purchases of U.S. products to support for its political objectives from American states and companies who want to sell their products to Cuba,” he said.