U.S. and Cuba Sign Continental Shelf Treaty

Graphic courtesy Heritage Foundation

Published Jan 19, 2017 9:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

In the waning hours of the Obama administration, Cuba and the United States signed a bilateral treaty that delimits mineral rights on the Gulf of Mexico continental shelf, bringing years of negotiation to a close. 

Cuba and the U.S. signed a treaty to formalize their maritime borders in 1977, but they did not resolve the question of drilling rights in the "Eastern Gap," or "doughnut hole.” This triangular patch of international waters falls within the overlapping margins of U.S., Cuban and Mexican continental shelf claims, and its oil and gas potential may be significant.

Mexico has already signed agreements covering its piece of the Eastern Gap with both the U.S. and Cuba, and the bilateral U.S.-Cuban treaty was the final piece of the puzzle. Before the new treaty enters into force it must be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and that may take some time: the chamber has not yet taken a vote on the 1977 Cuban maritime boundaries treaty.

When negotiations on the "doughnut hole" began in 2014, officials told media that an agreement would not be ready until 2018 at the earliest. However, the possibility that incoming president Donald Trump could reverse the recent thaw in relations with Cuba has prompted diplomats to accelerate their efforts, and not only on the question of drilling rights. In their final week in office, Obama's emissaries also signed agreements with Cuba on maritime search and rescue operations, efforts to combat human trafficking and drug smuggling, spill response protocols and the protection of the marine environment, among other measures. President Obama also ended the longstanding “wet feet / dry feet” policy, under which Cuban nationals could remain permanently in the U.S. if they made it to American soil. 

Like almost all executive branch actions, these measures will be subject to review by the incoming administration, and their future is uncertain. In September, President-elect Trump appeared open to the prospect of normalized relations with Cuba. "50 years [of embargo] is enough," he said in an interview. "I think it's fine. I think it's fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba is fine." However, in November, Trump tweeted that "If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal.”