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Cuba’s Largest Power Plant Offline After Massive Oil Depot Fire Enters Third Day

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: August 9, 2022
Cuba's largest power plant is offline after a massive fire has destroyed several hundred thousand barrels of crude oil supplying the facility.
People look at the massive fire at a fuel depot in Matanzas, Cuba, on Aug. 8, 2022. The blaze has destroyed three of eight tanks at the facility, which supplies the country’s largest power plant. (Image: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

Cuba, one of the world’s few openly communist countries, is facing a serious crisis after a series of massive fires has destroyed oil depots crucial to supplying its largest power plant.

The inferno has so far injured more than 125 people, with at least one confirmed death. An additional 17 are reported missing, reported Havana Times.

The fire was caused by an explosion at Matanzas attributed to a lightning strike on one of eight oil storage tanks on Aug. 5, according to the communist government’s Ministry of Energy and Mines. 

The Times added that the first tanker held approximately 163,500 barrels of oil, all of which have been incinerated.

Matanzas is home to 140,000 residents and is approximately 90 kilometers east of Havana.

The blaze was fierce enough that it spread to a second oil tank on Aug. 6, which collapsed by the next morning, leading “to an intense explosion and a column of smoke several hundreds of meters high,” the article stated based on information reported from state television.

Exacerbating the situation, a third tank caught fire on Aug. 8. The additional tanks held almost 315,000 barrels of crude each, government information claims.

According to Aug. 7 reporting by Bloomberg, Cuba’s Union of Electrical Workers were paraphrased as warning, “The island would not be able to meet demand and requested public institutions implement energy-saving measures.”

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For Cubans, the fires are exceptionally significant because the tanks supply the Antonio Guiteras power plant, the largest in the country, generating 280 megawatts of electricity.

Cuba, like many other countries, relies almost entirely on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. The outlet states that the country consumes 8 million barrels of oil annually, of which more than 4.4 million are devoted to electricity generation alone.

The losses are significant in light not only of both a skyrocketing U.S. petrodollar and crude prices still flirting with $100 per barrel, but an inflation rate of 23 percent.

And the situation is far from having abated. Aug. 8 reporting by Bloomberg stated that the Guiteras power plant was forced to be taken entirely offline because the fire is disrupting the water supply required to cool the facility’s equipment.

Citing the Union’s social media accounts, Bloomberg paraphrased the group as stating, “With the new power failure, the country can cover just over half the island’s 3,000 MW peak energy demand…In all, some 1,223 MW of generation is off line.”

On Aug. 8, just days before the calamity struck, Havana Times reported that since June, Cuba, like other developing countries, has been rocked by protests rooted in an energy crisis as citizens face difficulties meeting their day-to-day needs.

The article reported that in June, students protested with the slogan “Turn on the power, pinga! (damn it)” and clanked pots and pans in response to daily rolling blackouts.

Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel was quoted by the Times as complaining about the student protests in a diatribe to the National Assembly, “There are some people who, to express their discomfort and misunderstanding, hit pots and pans, shout expressions against the leaders, some take advantage of the occasion to say some slogan against the revolution…”

“Those who act in this way…are doing what the counterrevolution wants and what those who have us blockaded want,” he claimed.

The government’s response to the energy crisis, the Times states, is to cancel summer recreational activities and deploy work from home orders.

The approach is similar to that modeled in a recent wargame conducted by the Government of Ireland on how to manage society if shortages of oil and petrol are endured in the fall and winter of 2022 and 2023.

One such response modeled was to issue work from home orders in a similar way to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pseudo-pandemic measures, reduce the speed limit, and restrict gasoline sales to first responders and essential workers.

Such policies are already live in the world. In Sri Lanka, whose economy has effectively totally collapsed after the government ran out of foreign reserves used to purchase oil and petroleum products, gasoline purchases have been rationed to essential workers and citizens are required to use a social credit-style QR code digital ID system if they wish to purchase.

Because the situation is so dire, the Cuban government has accepted “technical guidance” offered by the Biden Administration, Aug. 8 reporting by the Miami Herald stated.

Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, thanked “people and organizations in the U.S.,” including the government, for “technical advice, a proposal already in the hands of specialists for proper coordination” on Twitter.

Even Diaz-Canel tweeted, “We also appreciate the offer of technical advice from the U.S.”

Nonetheless, President Biden’s response to the crisis has not been met with warmth by the U.S. establishment media.

On Aug. 8, Mary Murray, NBC Senior Director for Latin America & Caribbean, tweeted, “Playing politics or playing with fire? It looks like help from @POTUS to fight the raging oil fire in #Cuba has been limited to phone calls. A Cuban official tells @NBCNews that #Washington has made no offer of material aid to fight the blaze raging since Friday…”