Blackouts Are Making a Comeback in Cuba

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Sunset with a black out in Havana. File photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES – Blackouts have once again  become a regular occurrence, at least in Mayari, Holguin, since the beginning of February. It seemed like something normal at first, attributed to potential temporary breaks in the electricity distribution lines and because they don’t commonly make repairs with the power flowing, suspending the service.

However, there have been warning signs since February 15th, as we are experiencing two, three and even four blackouts every day, in peak hours mostly, some of which last two or three hours long and on alternating circuits, an undeniable symptom of a deficit in electricity generation. However, more than a week of this critical situation had gone by and we weren’t given any information about it.

Finally, on Friday February 23rd, the electric company released a public statement explaining that the service would suffer disruptions due to a series of disastrous events, which combined with planned repair works of several generators in Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Nuevitas.

However, in reality, the service “would suffer disruptions” not from this date, like they stated, as there were disruptions for many days beforehand. Apparently, the news (which came a little late) really meant to say that the solution to the problem had become more complicated and that it was taking a bit longer than they had hoped.

The nature of the problem is still unknown, as are its specific causes, but we can’t help but remember the severe crisis we experienced at the turn of the century, which brought about the Energy Revolution and saw Marco Portal be dismissed as Minister of Basic Industries, which includes the electric plants.

As a result of that profound crisis in electricity generation, Fidel decided to invest in back-up generators to install all over the country in order to make up for any power deficit situation. You would think that they should avoid these deficits in power we are experiencing, but we don’t know what the current situation is, whether the investment was really feasible and whether they met their expectations or not. A part of our heavy foreign debt burden is a result of these purchases.

It’s pertinent to ask ourselves whether Cuba is ready for the development it needs (which the Government also wants by encouraging foreign investment) in terms of electricity generation and stability of the system. More tourism, more building projects, more industry, all lead to more electric energy consumption. There has been talk of changes to the energy matrix towards using renewable energy sources (wind, hydraulic, biomass and solar), but while these are great environmentally-speaking and we have great potential to develop some of these, it is still a long and costly solution.

It’s important to take a close look at this because more electric energy consumption in the name of development could mean a return to blackouts (like we’ve had recently) and it will be the Cuban people who carry yet another burden in their already unbearable bundle of poverty and difficulties. It would also be wise to investigate whether foreign investors are charged the extreme progressive tax on their electricity consumption which weighs heavily upon domestic use and that of self-employed workers and small business consumption. 

Blackouts in Cuba. File photo: EFE

Here in Mayari at least, February was like a remembrance of the ‘1990s: waiting until 8 or 9 PM in the evening a lot of the time for the “light” to come back in order to cook and watch TV. Let’s remember that the majority of Cuban families cook food using electricity and that the only accessible form of entertainment for most Cubans is TV.

Add to this the fact that transport is far worse here now than it was in the ‘90s, as local buses run one day and then don’t for three or four days; horse drawn passenger carts continue to refuse to cover long journeys because of a “one peso” fare for 3.5 km of potholes and Chinese bikes have already been worn out. Likewise, medicines are harder to find than beef; basic items (such as detergent, sugar, rice, eggs) are missing from store shelves for days, weeks and months sometimes, when they used to be regularly in stock up until recently. The little money a Cuban receives in wages has less and less real value. Missing and expensive staple root vegetables, not to mention the rest! Such a bleak scene!

That’s why these blackouts are so worrysome, because they are coming at a time of crisis which is recreating many of the worst experiences we had during the peak Special Period. And because the Cuban people feel that some kind of improvement should be seen by now instead of setbacks, any small tangible result of these ten years of Party Guidelines. However, we can’t see anything, just this renewed crisis which is engulfing our last hopes. We will soon see how the new Government tackles these challenges.