Ivan Garcia, 27 May 2016 — As of three weeks ago there have been power cuts of up to three hours in different parts of Havana. Sometimes longer.
“Friday, April 29 in Altahabana (a neighbourhood in the southeast of the city), the power was cut off from eleven at night until four-thirty in the morning. Because of the heat, I spent the whole night waving a fan over my eight-month-old baby. Two days earlier, there was a three-hour outage in the afternoon,” I was told by Magda, who works at Comercio Interior.
In the central and eastern provinces, the power cuts started in the middle of March. According to Reinaldo, who lives in San Pedrito in Santiago de Cuba, 550 miles east of Havana, the blackouts aren’t the only problem.
“In some parts of Santiago we get water every eight or nine days. People store it in buckets, bowls and improvised tanks, which increases the chance of mosquitos transmitting dengue, zika and chikungunya. You can add to that the countless earthquakes you get in the months of December through March. Many families sleep in the parks because they are afraid their roofs will collapse. The power cuts in Santiago are frequent. Sometimes half an hour, and other times up to five hours,” Reinaldo told me.
In Remedios, a town in Villa Clara province, 180 miles from the capital, Odaisi, an intensive care assistant, tells me that the cuts have become worse since the end of April.
“There are two or three a week, and sometimes up to five hours, or all night. People go out in the street because of the dreadful heat. Lots of people phone the electric company but they get no reply,” Odaisis said.
Esther, who works in a substation on the outskirts of Havana, is sure it isn’t because of a fuel shortage, which is what many people think. “Fifty percent of the electricity generated in the country uses Cuban diesel. And there are new plants which run on gas. The problem is unexpected breaks in the cables, which, together with maintenance to the power stations in Matanzas and Holguín, have created power shortages in peak hours.”
A power company official, who preferred to remain anonymous, didn’t think that the present cuts will get as bad as the ones in the years of the Special Period [a time of severe crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elimination of its aid to Cuba].
“No way. The country is much better prepared to deal with electricity supply. Thousands of kilometres of cable have been replaced, transformers and connections have been renewed, and power distribution losses, which got to thirty percent, have fallen to five percent. There is also more modern equipment in the power plants, and we have a contract with Russia to build two new power stations and modernise four others. Our present problem is due to breakages, but we will sort them out in the month of May,” the official assured me.
But Noel, who works at CUPET, the initials of the Cuba Petrol Company, is doubtful. “Out of the 105 thousand barrels a day we were receiving from Venezuela two years ago, now we only get sixty thousand, and my bosses tell me that they expect it to reduce further down to forty thousand or fewer barrels. In Venezuela, because of the drought, and the bad technical state of their power stations, there are constant power cuts outside of Caracas. To that you can add the economic crisis and the fact that oil exports represent ninety-five percent of their income.”
Although a barrel of oil has fallen from over a hundred dollars a barrel a few years ago to a little under thirty dollars on the international market, Orelvis, an economist, believes that the Cuban government doesn’t have enough money to buy fuel.
“Bartering with Venezuela is the perfect business deal. Medical services in exchange for oil, and part of the oil gets re-exported. Now electricity generation in the country has increased. More hotels and private businesses consuming more, and some of the people with money to buy things have air conditioning and electrical appliances in their houses. I think there has been a setback in electricity production, but I don’t think that the situation can be as serious as in the 90’s, and the Special Period, but people need to be ready for programmed blackouts in the coming months,” he thought.
Raisa, a technician in the electric company sees the problem differently. “Every province and town in the country has an assigned level of fuel consumption, and, for various reasons, most of them are consuming more. That, plus the recent breakdowns, are the cause of the latest outages.”
But it’s difficult to convince the Cuban in the street with technical arguments. There is nothing they like less than a power cut.
“It’s one damn thing after another. A screw-up getting any food. Salaries which are too low, not enough public transport, and now they are telling us that if the drought continues, the water supply will be cut in Havana. And, the cherry on the cake, more power cuts. It’s too much. We have had these problems for nearly sixty years, and they have never come up with a definitive solution,” complains Adelberto, a pensioner.
The electricity cuts in Cuba are cyclical. For one reason or another, they always recur. It’s one of the pernicious legacies of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Translated by GH