A lightning strike, a chain of fireball explosions so powerful they could be seen in Havana 65 miles away, and a lingering stench of sulfur.
The five-day fire at Cuba’s main oil storage facility in Matanzas was sparked by lightning on Friday night. In the days that followed, the flames spread “like an Olympic torch” to three other tanks containing hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of fuel, according to region Gov. Mario Sabines.
The fire was finally brought under control on Tuesday. By then it had killed at least one person and injured 125 others, and dealt a critical blow to Cuba’s energy infrastructure.
And as the smoke clears, speculation mounts that this — and the power outages that will inevitably follow — may further destabilize the “Cuban Revolution,” at one of the most perilous moments in its 63-year history.
Millions of Cubans – especially in the rural provinces – have been living with power cuts lasting hours every day for months. In the August heat, food spoils quickly and sleep becomes all but impossible.
The situation is tense: the direct trigger for the unprecedented protests of last summer was a 12-hour power failure.
In Matanzas, Odalys Medina Peña, 60, said she had long since got used to cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner at dawn in anticipation of power outages.
“You have to adapt and see if the country can solve the situation. When something like this happens, everyone comes together – because if there is one thing Cuba has, it is humanity.”
But with toxic smog obscuring much of Havana’s sunlight over the weekend, the mood in the capital was less stoic.A local resident sits on a seawall as smoke billows from the fire in the background. Photo: Ismael Francisco/AP
“I’m scared of this terrible cloud and worried about power outages,” said Adilen Sardinas, 29, who is eight months pregnant. “How should the state deal with it?”
Officials have not said how much crude, diesel and heating oil was lost in the fire, but Cuba was already experiencing an energy crisis.
Oil shipments from Venezuela have slumped as Cuba’s South American ally struggles to refine enough oil for its own needs. The surge in global oil prices caused by the war in Ukraine has also made it difficult for Cuba to buy it on the world market.
Analysts say the double whammy of Covid, which nearly halted tourism in 2020 and 2021, and US sanctions were key.
Cuba’s “foreign exchange inflows nearly halved between 2018 and 2021,” said Emily Morris, a development economist at University College London. “Despite cutting fuel and food supplies to a substantial minimum, they accounted for more than half of all import spending in 2021, with bigger cuts in all other imports, including spare parts, capital equipment, capital goods and consumer goods, so you can see what for a devastating effect that would have.”
Despite Joe Biden’s campaign promise to reverse “Trump policies that harmed Cubans and their families,” the bulk of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the island remains.
Tankers transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba still face sanctions. Analysts say this will force the island to pay a premium for the freight.
While Venezuela and Mexico sent teams of specialists and fire-fighting foam over the weekend, the US offered “technical assistance”. According to a Cuban government official, this has so far amounted to “communication” between “technical personnel” from the two countries.
Fulton Armstrong, the US intelligence agency’s senior Latin American analyst, said there were “fears among advocates of a return to the normalization process initiated by President Obama, which the [Biden] The administration is… secretly hopeful that the energy and other issues are a test of “the regime’s” failure.”
Jorge Piñon, director of the Energy and Environment Program for Latin America and the Caribbean at the University of Texas at Austin, said that even before the fire, his modeling predicted a “total collapse” of the island’s energy grid this summer.
He also pointed out that a Russian tanker carrying 115,000 tons of oil is due to dock at the port of Matanzas later this week. “Where should she go?”