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Cuba swelters through power outages amid an energy grid in need of an overhaul

A recent fire exacerbated the problems. “You cannot continue to run these old plants that are tired and worn out," an energy analyst said.
Image: Blackout in Havana
A couple walks on a dark street during a blackout in Havana on Aug. 18. Ernesto Mastrascusa / EPA / Shutterstock

HAVANA — The whirring of the fan comes to a stop. In the hot, humid dark, the sweat on your skin starts to bead up again. The high-pitched buzz of mosquitoes — which had been kept at bay by the fan's breeze — once again comes into earshot as they dive down. It’s another long, restless night after another power outage.

That’s how Cubans across the country have spent the last scorching weeks of summer after a huge fire last month melted half the island’s main oil depot. But even before that catastrophe made things worse, millions in the country’s provinces were already facing grueling power outages, the result of an aging energy grid in need of an overhaul.

Flames rise from a massive fire at a fuel depot sparked by a lightning strike in Matanzas, Cuba, on Aug. 8, 2022.
Flames rise from a massive fire at a fuel depot sparked by a lightning strike in Matanzas, Cuba, on Aug. 8. Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images

At the same time, the country's tough economic situation, compounded by tightened U.S. sanctions in recent years that targeted oil shipments — part of a punitive, decadeslong embargo — — makes fixing the power grid much harder.

“I go the whole night without sleeping and then have to work a 24-hour shift,” said a young medical student in the municipality of Nuevitas in Camagüey province. “In the summer months, the heat and the mosquitoes really whip you ... people here are delirious for lack of sleep.”

His town now goes with just 12 hours of electricity a day. Food turns bad in the refrigerator while the long power outages are taking their toll on people’s rusty machines. “Many families are losing their fridges, TVs and fans,” he said.

A woman looks at her phone while eating by candlelight during a blackout in Havana on May 25, 2022.
A woman looks at her phone while eating by candlelight during a blackout in Havana on May 25. Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images

At their wits' end, hundreds of people in Nuevitas, took to the streets two weeks ago banging pots and pans at night.

Sporadic protests have been recorded throughout Cuba since scheduled blackouts increased this spring: people have come out to vent in the towns like Los Palacios in the west, cities like Camagüey in the center of the island and Santiago in the east.

“There have been dozens of protests around the country, generally small scale, confined to particular neighborhoods,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University.

“So far the government has been smart in how it has responded,” he added. “Not one of them has expanded like (last year’s) July 11 demonstrations, and the government has tried to be responsive, having local officials come out and tell people when the power is coming back.”

When protesters came out in Los Palacios in June, the president of the municipal parliamentary assembly, Jose Ramón Cabrera, went to speak with them. After trying to “transmit confidence” to the protesteors, he said delegates and protesters “hugged each other.”

But in authoritarian Cuba, cuddles can mingle with coercion. The three people contacted by NBC in Nuevitas about the protests, which went on for two nights, all declined to give their names for fear of reprisals. All said plainclothes police officers and even special forces appeared following the protests. Justicia 11, a human rights group that monitors arrests on the island, said that following the protests, 19 people in the municipality have been arrested.

 Infrastructure decays, sanctions bite

The Cuban government says the energy crisis is driven by a lack of fuel and an aging energy grid. “We have a situation of deterioration,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged recently, “which cannot be quickly resolved.”

He’s not wrong: half of Cuba’s electricity comes from 13 thermoelectric plants, most of which were built in the Soviet times. Before even considering fuel, the country needs $250 million a year just to maintain and operate its grid, according to the Cuban Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Decades of underinvestment mean that most infrastructure in Cuba is old and often shoddy. With revenue streams pinched, it’s not clear the state has enough money for upkeep.

Miriam Cortes poses with her fan next to a photo of Fidel Castro during a planned power outage in Regla, Cuba, on Aug. 1.
Miriam Cortes poses with her fan next to a photo of Fidel Castro during a planned power outage in Regla, Cuba, on Aug. 1.Ramon Espinosa / AP

While protesters mainly blame the government, experts consulted by NBC said U.S. sanctions on the island — which specifically target energy shipments — make the blackouts worse.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba, which turned 60 this year, is the longest and most comprehensive regime of sanctions in modern history.

In word and deed, the Trump administration reprised the initial logic behind the sanctions — “alienating internal support” for the regime by visiting “economic dissatisfaction and hardship” on the population, in the words of President Dwight Eisenhower’s State Department. To stymie hard currency inflows, the Trump administration hammered the island with more than 200 new measures, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign.

Despite his campaign promise to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans”, President Joe Biden has so far left most of them in place.

“The embargo is a major contributing factor to the power cuts because (it is) one of the major reasons for the government’s shortage of foreign exchange currency,” LeoGrande said.

“Without foreign exchange currency, the government cannot afford the parts and supplies for proper maintenance of the electrical grid’s equipment. They cannot afford to expand the grid’s capacity to keep up with rising demand,” he said.

In addition, a long-term decline in oil shipments from its main ally, Venezuela, has forced the country to buy more petroleum on the open market; the Covid pandemic has crushed tourism revenues; and now Russia's invasion of Ukraine has ramped up global gas prices.

With allies' help, trying to get the lights back on

Venezuela and Mexico, both of which sent specialist teams to help put out last month’s fire, have said they will help rebuild the supertanker storage facility in Matanzas.

The role of Russia is also critical: analysts say the American and the European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow after the Ukraine invasion are forcing the government of President Vladimir Putin to find new oil outlets. Shortly after the fire, a Russian tanker carrying 700,000 barrels of oil docked on the island. 

Díaz-Canel said new investments will allow a gradual recovery of the electrical system. By December, he said, the country will be able to “reduce blackouts as far as possible, even reducing them to zero.”

Since the fire, Cuban officials have held talks with a Turkish company to have it double the megawatts it currently produces from floating power plants.

Trying to run Grand Prix 'with a 1954 Chevy'

The Communist Party of Cuba will likely be breathing a sigh of relief after getting through a disastrous summer without a repeat of last year’s historic protests. In addition, five years on from the Obama administration's historic opening of relations with Cuba, Washington’s renewed policy of regime change toward the island is yet to bear fruit.

From the government’s standpoint, there are some green shoots: tourism — one of the economy’s main engines — is reviving; energy demand is projected to reduce as fall approaches and air conditioning units are switched off; and if, as polls predict, Luis Inácio Lula de Silva is elected president next month in Brazil, Havana will count on a hefty new ally with a history of ploughing money into the island.

And yet Cuba’s energy troubles are too deep-seated to go away any time soon. Economists agree that unless the government makes the island’s moribund economy much more productive, it won’t be able to build the new energy plants it needs and will remain stuck with its current policy: a “Band-Aid solution”, according to Jorge Piñon, senior research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.

“You cannot continue to run these old plants that are tired and worn out. Every time one goes out of service, it puts more pressure on the other ones. It’s a vicious circle,” he said. “They are trying to run the Monaco Grand Pix with a 1954 Chevy — you’re never going to win.”

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