High-ranking US Senator Dick Durbin was in Cuba pressing for the release of a jailed American, and in talks on Cuba’s key offshore oil drilling project near US waters, his office said on Wednesday.
The US does not maintain full diplomatic relations with its neighbor, the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, so the visit marks a rare contact between a ranking US lawmaker and top Cuban officials.
“The trip has focused on changes in Cuba — including Cuba’s substantial offshore drilling proposal — as well as discussions on improved relations between the US and the island nation,” a statement from Durbin’s office said. “Durbin also pressed the Cuban government to release Alan Gross, a USAID contract worker who has been jailed since 2009.”
Gross was found guilty in March of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering laptops and communications equipment to Cuba’s small Jewish community under a US Department of State contract.
Earlier, in Washington, the US rejected the idea of freeing Cuban nationals in return for contractor Gross, saying the jailed American held by Havana was not a spy.
A Cuban diplomat, in a letter released on Tuesday, said Cuba was ready to find a “humanitarian solution” on Gross in return for a “reciprocal” gesture of releasing five Cubans imprisoned on charges of spying in the US.
“Their cases aren’t comparable and the Cuban five were convicted in federal court and are serving their sentences,” US Department of State spokesman William Ostick said. “Alan Gross is not a spy.”
“We continue to call on the Cuban government to release Alan Gross,” he said.
Durbin, the second-highest ranking member of the Senate and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, met Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon; Archbishop Jamie Ortega; members of the international diplomatic community, the staff of the US Interests Section and Cuban reformers, a statement said.
US authorities, lacking a normal working relationship with Cuban authorities, have voiced concerns about potential for another oil -disaster as cash-strapped Cuba gears up to try to become a new oil power in the Gulf of Mexico with potential to seriously harm the key tourism industry.
The US has a large oil industry presence in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, which was the site of the devastating 2010 oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history.
The Cuban government plans to use the platform — the Chinese-made Scarabeo 9 — to drill for oil deep in Gulf of Mexico waters, off Cuba’s north coast. The machinery is managed by Spanish oil giant Repsol.
Daniel Whittle of the non-governmental Environmental Defense Fund said after a recent visit to Havana that the Cubans plan to drill as many as six exploratory wells by next year.
Cuba has long been plagued by energy dependence, its economic Achilles heel. It used to depend on the Soviet bloc for cut-rate oil and plunged into economic chaos and blackouts when it was cut off after 1989.
Now Cuba depends on Venezuela — its vital economic and political ally — for most of its oil, and any cut to Venezuelan supplies could spell political and economic disaster for Havana.
However, if Cuba locks in its energy independence, it could lurch from a cash-poor communist outpost into a flush oil exporter overnight. That potentially could project its current regime years into the future.