Cuba swept by rumours of offshore oil riches
The possible discovery of large oil deposits in Cuban territorial waters in the Gulf of Mexico has sparked a flurry
of rumours across the country, in stark contrast with the government's silence.
Debate has heated up as August approaches and the date set for reports from the transnational oil company Repsol-YPF draws near. The Spanish energy group started prospecting last June in locations agreed upon with the government of Fidel Castro. The contract on the Norwegian semi-submersible Eric Raude platform is costing the company $ 195,000 per day.
"Something must be there, no one would spend so much money just on a whim," stated taxi-driver Manuel Bello.
Repsol-YPF, which has invested heavily in Latin America, is prospecting more than 30 km off the northern coast of
Cuba, around 1,500 metres below sea level at a point called Yamagua-1. Seismic tests here suggested potential
capacity of 1.63 bn barrels. Ocuje, with an estimated capacity of 435 mm barrels, Obatal with 1.24 bn, and Caraguito
with 2.82 bn barrels are other potential sites for the company to drill.
Some of the rumours going around this socialist state are that laboratory tests are already underway to determine the quality of crude oil extracted from Yamagua-1. Others say the search is still on because "they have yet to reach the bottom."
Repsol-YPF has mining rights on 6 of the 59 exploration blocks opened to tender in mid-1999 by the Cuban government.
These lie in an area of 112,000 sq km within the country's exclusive economic zone on the Gulf of Mexico.
In the late 1970s, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established a 200-mile jurisdiction for coastal states. These areas were made exclusive economic zones in which each country exercises sovereignty over its natural resources. Maritime frontiers between Cuba and the United States, Mexico and other neighbouring countries, were defined in the early 1980s.
When announcing the call for tenders, Cuban experts were already emphasising that the area was especially rich in
crude oil and located close to major oil-producing countries like Mexico and Venezuela. "Why shouldn't fortune smile
on us too" is the gist of off-the-record statements by experts.
But despite all the talk and high expectations, President Castro made no mention of any oil discovery during his Jul. 26 speech at the anniversary celebrations for the 1956 assault on the Moncada barracks, celebrated on the island as National Revolution Day -- a major national holiday.
The feeling shared by many Cubans who dream of such an announcement is that they could do with a strong injection of
optimism. But it did not arrive. Others continue watching the president's face closely for signs.
"He looked happy yesterday, so there might be good news," said Oscar Reynoso, a retired transport worker following a public appearance by Castro.
But whatever people on the street might be saying, everyone agrees any discovery of "light" oil would be positive from all points of view. In fact, it could totally turn the vulnerable Cuban economy around; its Achilles' heel is precisely its dependence on oil imports.
Reynoso pointed out that public transit was one of the sectors hardest hit by the abrupt cut in fuel supplies from
the Soviet Union Up until 1989 Moscow supplied Cuba with 13 mm tons of crude oil.
"The pipeline closed when the Soviet Union and the East European socialist block disappeared," he said.
The 60 % reduction in crude imports caused a fall of up to 70 % in Cuba's refining capacity. Industry and public transport were pushed to the brink of collapse by the lack of fuel. According to official figures, the country produced some five and a half million tons less of oil by-products between 1990 and 1998, with substantial reductions in petrol, fuel-oil, diesel and industrial naphtha.
Cuba currently imports around 100,000 bpd, and produces about 75,000 bpd of gas and oil. Discoveries to date have
only brought heavy crude with high levels of sulphur and large quantities of gas, which is used to generate
electricity for this Caribbean island with a population of 11.2 mm.
Domestic oil production is concentrated in a band 200 km long and between 10 and 20 km wide on the northern coast of the provinces of Havana and Matanzas -- some 100 km from the capital. Proven reserves in this area -- where companies from countries like Spain, Canada, France and Sweden operate under exploration risk contracts -- exceed 100 mm tons, although extracting only low-quality crude.
The country currently spends around a billion dollars per year on oil imports, and the high and rising international
prices make the debilitated state coffers tremble. Some crude oil and derivatives are imported from Venezuela, which
supplies some 53,000 bpd, under an agreement strongly criticised by right-wing opposition sectors within Venezuela,
who long for President Hugo Chavez's departure.
Havana pays for 80 % of the oil at market price 90 days after delivery. The remaining 20 % must be repaid in 15 years' time, with two extra years grace thrown in at 2 % annual interest.