Castro says U.S. companies welcome to prospect for petroleum off Cuba's coast

Thursday, December 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ President Fidel Castro says he would allow U.S. companies to prospect for petroleum off the coast of Cuba _ even though U.S. law would probably forbid it.

``We would not deprive Americans of the possibility of investing in these resources,'' Castro said late Wednesday in a three-hour live television appearance on the government's nightly ``Round Table'' program.

``If tomorrow anyone wants to participate in the search, we would provide them with the same possibilities of those already looking,'' he added.

The long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba would seem to bar American companies from prospecting for petroleum off the island's coast.

Cuba, long dependent on petroleum imports, has begun searching for crude oil in recent years. Foreign partners and investment would provide cash-poor Cuba with the assistance it needs to undertake wide-scale off-coast prospecting

Castro's idea came up while he was discussing Cuba's first direct commercial purchases of American food. He said Cuba was paying $40 million _ including transportation costs _ to purchase the grains, chicken and other products to be delivered through the end of February.

Representatives of American business and some U.S. officials hope the shipments will lead to increased trade with Cuba. Many anti-Castro exiles oppose the food sales, saying they will erode U.S. trade sanctions they say are necessary to punish Castro's one-party government.

Castro, who has long sought an end to the sanctions, said the food will replace reserves depleted since early November, when Hurricane Michelle barreled across the island, destroying tens of thousands of homes and severely damaging crops.

The U.S. government offered humanitarian aid to Cuba after the hurricane, but Havana said it would rather make direct commercial purchases of American food to restock reserves.

Nearly all trade between the two nations is banned under the U.S. embargo. Congress, however, passed a law last year that permitted the sale of American food to Cuba.