Cuban oil fire all but out, blackouts and gas lines lengthen


FILE PHOTO: Workers rest next to images of late former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Cuba's former President Raul Castro and Cuba's President and First Secretary of the Communist Party Miguel Diaz-Canel in an area of tanks that exploded near Cuba's supertanker port in Matanzas, Cuba, August 10, 2022. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans have been left to endure six- to 18-hour blackouts, and search for ever-scarcer gasoline in the wake of a spectacular blaze that destroyed 40% of Cuba’s main fuel depot and shuttered its only supertanker port.

The fire began on Friday when lighting struck a storage tank, spreading to three others before being brought under control on Tuesday. By Thursday the flames were out, but oil residues remained dangerously hot.

The import dependent Caribbean Island nation was already reeling from the impact of tough U.S. sanctions, the pandemic’s impact on tourism and rising international prices for fuel, food and shipping.

Cuba has long relied on the 2.4-million-barrel Matanzas terminal, about 60 miles (130 km) from Havana, for most crude and heavy fuel imports and storage.

“We have to do a survey (and) see what is the availability of our refineries ... and with this the relationship of ports to refineries,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said at a planning meeting, parts of which were broadcast by state media late on Wednesday.

“We have to be able to process the fuels that are entering the country in the shortest possible time,” he said.

The communist-run country imports 60% of the fuel it consumes.

Cubans were already suffering through chronic power outages, fuel, food and medicine shortages and lining up for hours to purchase basic goods.

The accident has aggravated the energy crisis due to an obsolete power grid and poor maintenance, said Jorge Pinon, director of the University of Texas at Austin's Latin America and Caribbean Energy and Environment.

"Now there is a lack of logistics to supply these plants, an extreme situation, a difficult situation for the Cuban people that unfortunately has no short-term solution," he said.

Just over a year ago, unrest swept the country and this year there have been scattered small protests, mainly over blackouts.

In the city of Camaguey, in central Cuba, retired nurse Aneida Gonzalez said she was now worried food would spoil in the fridge.

“Before the Matanzas accident, the blackouts were six to eight hours a day and now they are 12 hours to 18 hours a day, sometimes split into two parts,” she said in a telephone interview.

In Eastern Holguin province housewife Edilma Lezcano said by phone that daily power outages were now lasting 12 hours, and gasoline “very scarce, not just because there are no supplies, but no electricity to keep the service stations open.”

Since 2020 Cuban imports have fallen 40% and its gross domestic product by 10%. Inflation soared 77% last year and 28% so far in 2022, according to the government, though most independent analysts put price increases in the triple digits.

Havana, home to 20% of the country’s 11.2 million inhabitants, had been spared the worst of the energy crisis until this month, when rolling four-hour blackouts every three days began and diesel fuel vanished. Since the oil depot blaze power outages are more frequent, longer and less predictable.

"Now we are more affected ... We are going from blackout to blackout," 67-year-old Daniel Duarte said in central Havana.

Nearby, Raudel Machado, a young man, was waiting in line for gas.

"The queues are quite long and sometimes you have to go from station to station and when you find it you have to wait for hours," he said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Reuters television; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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