After five days, fire in Cuba continues out of control

A lightning strike, a chain of fireball explosions so huge they could be seen 65 miles away in Havana, and a lingering stench of sulfur.

The five-day blaze at Cuba’s main oil storage facility in Matanzas was sparked by lightning on Friday night. Over the following days, the flames spread “like an Olympic torch” to three more tanks containing hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of fuel, according to the region’s governor, Mario Sabines.

Only on Tuesday was the conflagration finally brought under control. 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 is mounting that it – and the blackouts that will inevitably follow – could further destabilize the “Cuban Revolution”, already at one of the most perilous moments in its 63-year history.

Millions of Cubans – especially those in the rural provinces – have for months been living with daily power cuts that last hours. In the August heat, food rots quickly, and sleep becomes all but impossible.

The situation is tense: the immediate trigger for last summer’s unprecedented protests was a 12-hour power outage.

In Matanzas, Odalys Medina Peña, 60, said she had long grown used to cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the crack of dawn in anticipation of blackouts.

“You’ve got to adapt and see whether the country can resolve the situation. When something like this happens, everyone comes together – because if Cuba has one thing, it’s humanity.”

But with toxic smog blotting out much sunlight in Havana over the weekend, the feeling in the capital was less stoic.

A resident sits on the malecon sea wall as smoke rises in the background from the fire.
A resident sits on a sea wall as smoke rises in the background from the fire. Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP

“I’m frightened of this horrible cloud and I’m worried about power cuts,” said Adilen Sardinas, 29, who is eight months pregnant. “How is the state going to handle this?”

Officials have not said how much crude, diesel, and fuel oil has been lost in the fire, but Cubans are already bracing for an even more severe energy crisis.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the fire’s magnitude made it difficult to control in Cuba, where there are not all the means that are required to tackle the blaze.

The Yucatan Times
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