A rather extraordinary event has taken place this week in Mexico City where Cuban officials and U.S. energy executives were meeting at the Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton, owned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. The meetings were disrupted and had to be moved to a Mexican-owned hotel this past Saturday when the Hotel Maria Isabel abrubtly evicted all 16 members of an official Cuban trade delegation after one night, withholding the balance of their three day deposit in the process. It was reported that the Cubans suddenly found themselves out on the street, surrounded by their bags. The episode is rapidly escalating into a major international incident.

One might imagine that some sort of inappropriate conduct by the Cubans had led to this extraordinary turn of events, but no such conduct has been alleged or even suggested. Rather, according to Kirby Jones, president of the US-Cuba Trade Association, the U.S. government pressured the hotel owner to expel the Cubans, claiming that the company was in violation of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Starwood officials confirmed that the U.S. Treasury Department had requested the expulsion, and a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Mexico was quoted as saying that “US law prohibits US persons and entities from providing services to Cuban national persons or entities, and the Sheraton, as a subsidiary of a US company, is bound by US law.”

It is not surprising that the Bush administration, never one to be bothered by the laws of other nations, would attempt to exert pressure on U.S. companies doing business in other countries when it suits their agenda. Unfortunately for Sheraton and the Bush administration, the expulsion of the Cuban officials appears to violate Mexico’s local and national laws prohibiting discrimination. Mexico secretary of foreign affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez, observed that the Helms-Burton law “does not exist” in Mexico, “and should not be applied, in our nation,” Echoeing similar sentiments, Mexican foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, says the idea that a United States law is being enforced on Mexican soil is troubling. “There does not exist and neither should there exist the extraterritorial application of this law in our nation,” he said. Mexican authorities are investigating and exploring sanctions against the hotel ranging from fines to closure. The Cubans have also been notified that they can file for damages in Mexican courts if adequate grounds can be demonstrated. Mexico City Mayor Alejandro Encinas has independently threatened to have the hotel shut down if local prosecutors determine that local anti-discrimination laws were broken. Adding to the questionable legality of the U.S. government demand and Starwood’s compliance, the Mexican Congress, in 1996, enacted a law forbidding companies here to comply with the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Cuba is also outraged. An editorial in the state-run newspaper, Granma, equated the expulsion with “petty meanness” and represented “an outrage” against Mexican sovereignty. “The tentacles of the blockade and the United States’ criminal economic war against Cuba tend to extend themselves to every corner of the planet, including to the detriment of the sovereignty and laws of other states,” the editorial said.

There seems to be no dispute of the involvement of the U.S. government in this embarrassing and almost certainly illegal incident. The New York Times reports that “On Friday, the United States Treasury Department contacted the company that owns the Sheraton and warned them that they were violating federal laws against trading with Cuba by allowing the meeting to take place in their hotel.” According to the Times, “The hotel told the Cuban representatives to leave, and sent their room deposits to the Treasury Department.”

While the Bush administration’s coziness with, and largesse towards, the U.S. energy industry is well documented, the coziness evidently chills when it comes to dealing with Castro’s Cuba, which is trying to entice American oil companies to join Chinese, Canadian, Indian and Norwegian companies into oil exploration deals in Cuban waters. The Cubans were urging the U.S. companies to lobby against the U.S. embargo of Cuba so they could invest in the Cuban energy sector. Substantial oil reserves were discovered in Cuban waters two years ago, and Cuba has announced plans to double drilling capacity and exploration for oil in Cuban waters. The U.S. embargo currently prohibits American companies from competing for the lucrative contracts. The meetings in Mexico City were attended by Texas executives representing Exxon Mobil and Valero Energy Corporation. the Louisiana Department of Economic Development was also represented, as were Texas port authorities.

The fact that these events occured at a conference dealing with oil hardly seems a coincidence. U.S.-Cuba Trade Association President Jones maintains that he has arranged nine other meetings attended by Cuban officials in Mexico on different topics, including several held at a Westin Hotel in Cancun, also owned by Starwood, with no U.S. interference. “It is absolutely extraordinary,” says Jones, “that…the U.S. government on a Friday night should engage in efforts to kick 16 Cubans out of a hotel in Mexico, sitting and meeting with U.S. businessmen.” Jones mocked the broad interpretation of the law, arguing that “if you take this to its logical extreme, no Cuban can stay at any American hotel in the world and no Cuban can buy a McDonald´s hamburger anywhere.” He noted that, with the United States increasingly seeking energy sources close to home, it is ridiculous that U.S. oil companies be forbidden from competing with the Chinese, Europeans, Canadians and others in the sea off Cuba. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there could be 5 billion barrels of oil in the area plus large quantities of natural gas.

With President Bush advocating, in his State of the Union address, less dependence on Middle East oil, and with Venezuela, angered by alleged spying by U.S. diplomats, threatening to close U.S. oil refineries owned by Citgo, the U.S. unit of Venezuela’s state oil company, one has to wonder about the Bush administration’s provocative hostility toward the possibility of the opening of new oil markets 90 miles off U.S. shores.

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