At my wits’ end, hundreds of people in Nuevitas, took to the streets hitting pots and pans at night two weeks ago.
Sporadic protests have been registered across Cuba since the planned power cuts intensified this spring: people have come out to vent in 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 across the country, generally small-scale, confined to certain neighborhoods,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.
“So far, the government has responded smartly,” he added. “None of them have been as extensive as the July 11 (last year) demonstrations, and the government has tried to respond by having local officials come out and tell people when the power will come back.”
When protesters came to Los Palacios in June, the president of the Municipal Parliamentary Assembly, Jose Ramón Cabrera, went to talk to them. After trying to “transmit confidence” to the protesters, he said that deputies and protesters “hug each other”.
But in authoritarian Cuba, hugging can go hand in hand with coercion. The three people NBC contacted in Nuevitas about the protests, which lasted two nights, all refused to give their names for fear of reprisals. All the police officers mentioned and even special units appeared after the protests. Justicia 11, a human rights organization that oversees arrests on the island, said 19 people have been arrested in the municipality following the protests.
Infrastructure decays, sanctions bite
The Cuban government says the energy crisis is caused by a lack of fuel and an aging energy grid. “We have a deteriorating situation,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel recently acknowledged, “that cannot be resolved quickly.”
He’s not wrong: half of Cuba’s electricity comes from 13 thermoelectric plants, most of which were built during Soviet times. Before even thinking about fuel, the country needs $250 million a year to maintain and operate its electricity grid, according to the Cuban Ministry of Energy and Mines.
Decades of underinvestment mean that most of the infrastructure in Cuba is old and often shoddy. With revenue streams squeezed, it’s not clear that the state has enough money for maintenance.
While protesters mainly blame the government, experts consulted by NBC said US sanctions on the island — which is specific target energy shipments — make the blackouts worse.
The US embargo on Cuba, which turned 60 this year, is the longest and most comprehensive sanctions regime in modern history.
In word and deed, the Trump administration reiterated the original logic behind the sanctions – “alienating internal support” for the regime by targeting “economic discontent and hardship” among the population, in the words of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Department of State. To curb the influx of hard currency, the Trump administration has besieged the island with more than 200 new measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign.
Despite his campaign promise to “undo Trump’s failed policies that have harmed Cubans,” President Joe Biden has so far left most of them in place.
“The embargo is a major contributing factor to the power outages because (it) is one of the main reasons for the government’s foreign exchange deficit,” LeoGrande said.
“Without foreign exchange, the government cannot afford the parts and supplies for proper maintenance of the electrical grid equipment. They cannot afford to expand the network’s capacity to keep up with rising demand,” he said.
In addition, a prolonged decline in oil supplies from its main ally, Venezuela, has forced the country to buy more oil in the open market; the Covid pandemic has crushed tourism revenues; and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed up global gas prices.
With the help of allies, try to turn the lights back on
Venezuela and Mexico, both of which sent specialized teams to extinguish last month’s fire, have said they will help rebuild the supertanker storage facility in Matanzas.
Russia’s role is also critical: analysts say the US and European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine are forcing President Vladimir Putin’s government to find new oil sites. Shortly after the fire, a Russian tanker carrying 700,000 barrels of oil docked on the island.
Díaz-Canel said new investments will allow for a gradual recovery of the electrical system. By December, he said, the country will be able to “reduce blackouts as far as possible, even to zero”.
Since the fire, Cuban officials have held talks with a Turkish company to double the megawatts it currently produces floating power plants.
Trying to drive a Grand Prix ‘with a 1954 Chevy’
The Communist Party of Cuba is likely to breathe a sigh of relief after a disastrous summer without repeating last year’s historic protests. Moreover, five years after the Obama administration’s historic opening of relations with Cuba, Washington’s renewed policy of regime change towards the island has yet to bear fruit.
From the government’s point of view, there are some green sprouts: tourism — one of the main drivers of the economy — is Reviving; energy demand is expected to decline as fall approaches and air conditioning units are turned off; and if, as polls predict, Luis Inácio Lula de Silva is elected president in Brazil next month, Havana will count on a hefty new ally with a history of plowing money on the island.
And yet Cuba’s energy problems are too deep-rooted to disappear 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 power plants it needs and stick to its current policy: a “patch solution,” said Jorge Piñon, senior research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
“You cannot continue to run these old factories that are tired and worn out. Every time one goes out of service, it puts more pressure on the other. It’s a vicious circle,” he says. “They’re trying to drive the Monaco Grand Pix with a 1954 Chevy – you’re never going to win.”