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U.S. faces mounting pressure to do more to help Cuba fight a deadly blaze at an oil facility

The fire has been raging since Friday after lightning struck the site, causing explosions and a toxic cloud of smoke to spread for miles. It's threatening to worsen Cuba's energy crisis.
Image: Cuba oil depot fire
Flames and smoke rise from the Matanzas supertanker base as firefighters work Monday to quell a blaze that began during a thunderstorm in Matanzas, Cuba, last week. Ismael Francisco / AP

At least one senior Cuban government official has expressed frustration over the lack of support offered by the United States to help extinguish a deadly fire that began Friday at a large oil storage facility in Matanzas, causing several explosions and sending a toxic cloud of smoke that has spread more than 65 miles.

One firefighter died due to an explosion at a second tank Saturday and, according to government reports, 14 firefighters are missing. Around 125 people have been injured.

The U.S. has offered Cuba technical assistance over the phone but no material support.

"So far US offered a phone number to an emergency local authority. We accepted, Cupet [Cuba's state-run oil company] made the phone call, had a good talk and the president @DiazCanelB & deputy minister @CarlosFdeCossio thanks technical advise. The rest is old same US abyss saying/acting," Johana Tablada, the deputy director for U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

While Cuban officials have expressed gratitude for the technical advice on social media, they have also consistently pointed out that it's all that they have received from Washington.

A Department of State spokesperson said, “We have had general discussions with the government of Cuba on this tragic disaster. However, the government of Cuba has not formally requested U.S. government assistance.”

But a high-ranking Cuban official told NBC News they made "an urgent call to the international community for help," rather than requesting support from individual countries.

"The U.S. State Department specified that what it could consider offering was technical advice," the official said.

Cuba has been in touch with private U.S. companies that specialize in addressing industrial fires, according to the official, who noted that the two governments have discussed potential U.S. approval needed for Cuba to contract and pay for their services.

The U.S. has had wide-ranging sanctions on the communist-run island for decades and the State Department spokesperson emphasized that the embargo includes a general authorization for transactions related to humanitarian projects, which covers, among other things, disaster preparedness, relief and response.

Image: Cuba oil depot fire
Firefighters work in the area Tuesday where a massive fire at a fuel depot was sparked by a lightning strike in Matanzas, Cuba, last week.Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images

"We are closely tracking the situation, including any humanitarian needs that may emerge, and have offered technical guidance to the government of Cuba. U.S. firefighting experts with experience dealing with oil storage facilities have talked to Cuban officials to offer technical advice," the spokesperson added.

The fire began Friday night after lightning struck one of the eight tanks in the facility. Three large crude tanks have collapsed since Friday, causing oil spills to spread the flames.

In Miami, home to the largest Cuban community outside the island, several activists have been asking the State Department for days to do more to assist with battling the inferno.

"We have asked officials in the State Department, who we are in contact with for other matters, to please act now," said Salomé García, one of the founders of Justicia 11J, an organization that keeps track of arrests following historic anti-government protests in Cuba last summer. "We have also demanded transparency in the steps that are being taken."

The dangerous cloud of smoke that has engulfed the area stretches to the capital, Havana, about 65 miles away, and home to 2.2 million people. The smoke contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other hazardous substances. The Public Health Ministry and the Cuban Red Cross have warned residents to wear masks and stay indoors.

The fire now threatens to deepen the already existing energy crisis on the island. Most Cubans have been grappling with blackouts during the hot summer months. The port in Matanzas is the largest one in the country receiving crude oil, which is then transferred to thermoelectric plants that produce electricity.

Echoing the sense of frustration expressed by Tablada over the U.S. response, a second high-ranking Cuban official said that technical support over the phone is "strictly what they offered, in addition to condolences, which we appreciate.”

Image: Cuba oil depot fire
Firefighters rest in the area Tuesday while fighting a massive fire at a fuel depot in Matanzas, Cuba. Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images

“When we have been asked by government officials or private individuals about our needs, we have been clear that the main need is to put out the fire,” the official said.

The governments of Mexico and Venezuela have sent teams to help fight the blaze.

Four flights from Mexico arrived in Cuba on Saturday with water cannons and 82 volunteers, including military and oil experts equipped with products. A naval vessel carrying aid was sailing toward Matanzas on Tuesday.

Venezuela sent 35 volunteers, including firefighters and technicians from its state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., with 20 tons of foam and other chemicals.

The Red Cross of China is sending aid to Cuba to help with the rescue and recovery operations, according to the provincial government of Matanzas.

"The disaster in Matanzas is getting worse by the minute and the threats to public health and safety are dire," said Daniel Whittle, a senior director for the Caribbean with Environmental Defense Fund. "In 2017, the U.S. and Cuba signed several bilateral agreements that promise cooperation in moments such as this. Those agreements are still in effect."

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