Cuban officials invited US corporations on Friday to lobby against the US trade embargo and invest in the communist nation's energy sector, as they announced plans to double their drilling capacity and explore for oil in the island's Caribbean waters.
In the first private-sector oil summit between the two countries, executives from US giants like ExxonMobil Corp, Caterpillar Inc and Valero Energy Corp were meeting with Cuban officials in Mexico City this week to learn about Cuba's potentially lucrative oil reserves.
"We would be happy if North American companies also participated in future projects," said Raul Perez de Prado, Cuba's vice minister of basic industry.
US executives should work to "eliminate the absurd barriers that today limit" investment, Perez de Prado said, referring to the 45-year-old US trade embargo designed to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro's communist government.
In the two years since oil deposits were found off its coast, Cuba has inked exploration deals with Canadian, Chinese, Indian and Norwegian firms.
But US corporations, their hands tied by the embargo, have been forced to watch the flurry of activity taking place less than 100km off the coast of Florida.
This week's gathering could be "a watershed moment" that ushers in a change in US policy, said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who studies the Cuban energy sector.
One year after Cuban and US agricultural officials held similar meetings in Mexico in 1999, the US government passed a law allowing food and agricultural exports to Cuba on a cash basis. Cuba says it has since purchased US$1.5 billion in American food.
Judith Bryan, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Mexico City, however, said the US was studying tightening its embargo against Cuba even more.
"There's nothing illegal about a meeting here in Mexico. But we would like to remind participants that the US government is not only continuing the existing sanctions but is studying the strengthening of the sanctions," she said.
"Our main goal is to reach out to the Cuban people and free them from the sanctions imposed on them by their own regime," she said.
ExxonMobil Ventures Mexico Ltd president Joe Newhart said that the three-day meeting was his company's first chance to meet Cuban energy authorities, and called it an "opportunity to see what goes on in Cuba firsthand."
Benjamin-Alvarado said working with Cuba would offer US companies a host of opportunities, from building refineries to storing oil if a hurricane should wipe out supplies in Houston, for example.
Cuba's first offshore petroleum discovery -- found in 2004 by Spanish petrochemical company Repsol-YPF -- was not considered commercially viable, but the discovery of reserves fueled the government's hopes of becoming more self-sufficient amid tightened US sanctions.
Cuba has since invested US$1.7 billion in its energy sector with help from Canada, Europe and Latin America.
Juan Fleitas, general director of oil monopoly CUPET SA, said Cuba plans to revamp its energy sector in the next few years, including doubling its drilling capacity and exploring its 59 deep-water blocks.
Foreign companies have agreed to explore 10 blocks so far, and six others are under negotiation.
Cuba, once almost wholly dependent on foreign fuel imports, now produces more than 30 percent of its own crude.