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The explosion at the Saratoga Hotel: another 'accident' for which one will be held responsible?

The Cuban Government washed its hands after the crash of the Global Air flight, and it did the same thing when a balcony collapsed, killing three girls. Will it do the same thing again?

La Habana
A family member of a person missing at the hotel prays for his safe return.
A family member of a person missing at the hotel prays for his safe return. Abel Rojas Barallobre / Facebook

The explosion that occurred on May 6 at the downtown Saratoga Hotel in Havana has led to an avalanche of reactions and news stories, but the official version of what happened, articulated just minutes after the events that left almost fifty dead, is the only one that has been articulated thus far.

According to Manuel Díaz-Canel when he visited the site, "it definitely was not a bomb, nor an attack, as the international media have already suggested, in a very perverse way, to confuse people and misrepresent the situation. It was simply a regrettable accident, very regrettable, and it seems to be related to the gas tank."

"That's what we can say so far, because we have no more information. Work is being done now. The most important thing is to allow the doctors, the paramedics, the rescue teams, and the police to do their jobs, together with the firefighters," he added.

On the same Friday, Cuba Petróleo (CUPET) announced the creation of a commission to investigate what happened, after indicating that "at the time and place of the explosion, a tanker truck containing liquefied gas, license number B187578, scheduled to delivery this product in response to the hotel's request, was in an unloading position. The equipment was in adequate condition to operate," according to the official website Cubadebate.

According to yet-to-be-confirmed sources, the truck was unloading gas at the hotel when a leak caused the explosion.

Thus far there has been no news regarding the CUPET commission or the ongoing investigation. The official press is concentrating on reporting the rescue work and the death count, and Cubans’ support for the victims, while in the networks there are calls for donations and more solidarity.

No one, however, has indicated who is directly responsible for what happened and the death of dozens of workers at the facility, nearby residents, passers-by and even a young Spanish woman who was outside the building destroyed.

Who runs the Hotel Saratoga?

The joint venture Hotel Saratoga, S.A., a Cuban company belonging to Grupo de Turismo Gaviota S.A., was incorporated by means of public deed number 1221, dated July 4, 1996, domiciled on Prado 603, at the corner of Dragones, according to the hotel's official website.

That is, the facility is owned by the Grupo de las Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA), a business conglomerate of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), headed by the general and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja.

In a September 2016 article in the official newspaper Trabajadores, Saratoga's director, Cuban lawyer Milka Pila Gálvez, explained that the joint venture in charge of the facility was comprised of the tourism company Habaguanex S.A. and the Panamanian entity Saratoga Resources S.A.

Habaguanex, attached to the Havana’s Historian’s Office, is part of GAESA, while Saratoga Resources, according to the OpenCorporates site, created on April 29, 1996, is registered in the name of agent Arosemena Noriega & Contreras, with Luis Alberto Rodríguez appearing as an underwriter.

Incidentally, the law firm Arosemena Noriega & Contreras was among the entities mentioned in the leaked information listing offshore companies linked to money laundering, capital concealment and tax evasion known as "The Panama Papers."

Will there be compensation or will the buck be passed yet again?

Judging by the attitude of the Cuban authorities in previous similar events, it can be assumed that the responsibility for the explosion will be placed on the individuals operating the gas supply truck, who, presumably, died in the explosion.

In 2019, more than a year after the crash of Cubana de Aviación Flight 972, operated by a Boeing 737-200 of Mexico's Global Air, Cuba's Civil Aeronautics Institute (IACC) published the final report on the causes, according to which the accident was caused by "human factors."

In that catastrophe, the largest in the history of civil aviation in Cuba, 112 people lost their lives. To date, the lawsuits filed in Mexico, Spain and the US against the insurance company Ve por Más SA, Grupo Financiero Ve por Más, and the owner of Aerolíneas Damojh (Global Air), Manuel Rodríguez Campos, continue to be processed by international law firms, with no solution in sight.

In 2020, DIARIO DE CUBA spoke with Spanish lawyer Carlos Villacorta Salís, managing partner of BCV Lex, a law firm representing 40 families and cabin crew members of the Boeing 737-200 flight that crashed, who said that the people he represents on the island had not received any compensation.

However, he clarified, "some have received small advances, especially in those cases involving minor children. In any case, these amounts are insufficient and do not meet minimum international standards."

However, he indicated that some of the people received "final offers made without counsel, offers not in line with the enormous damages suffered by the families, or even minimally acceptable."

In this regard, DIARIO DE CUBA spoke with the mother of one of the deceased, a resident of Holguín who is not a party to any of the lawsuits currently underway. She told us that the lawyer Alejandro Vigil Iduate, with the Bufete Internacional de la Isla, proposed giving the relatives a 5,000 CUC subsidy for the legalization of the notarial documents necessary for the proceedings, delivered as a bank deposit with a magnetic card as a means of payment.

"They never communicated with us again. Not even to ask how we were. They soon forgot about the accident," she said.

In August 2019, Archivo Cuba presented a report entitled "Cuba violates international law by failing to provide compensation for civil aviation accidents," asserting that the regime's practice of not compensating victims' families has been recurrent, over decades.

When the dead are Cubans

In the case of the Global Air flight passengers, the Cuban government washed its hands. In 2020, it did so again after the collapse of a balcony in Old Havana killed three girls.

A year after those events, DIARIO DE CUBA spoke with Gloria de las Mercedes García Noyola, the mother of Rocío, the 11-year-old girl who died in that other "accident" that many Cubans blamed on negligent authorities in charge of demolishing the building on which the balcony collapsed.

Regarding speculation about the possibility that the families affected would receive any compensation, the mother said that "there was concern, but no compensation."

In the case of the Saratoga Hotel, the deceased are mostly workers at the facility, who were preparing to open it for tourism on May 10. Will they and their families also be left empty-handed?

In the case of the 40 families in nearby buildings that suffered structural damage, and have been rendered uninhabitable, the governor of Havana, Reinaldo García Zapata, said on the day of the explosion, on the Mesa Redonda program, that these properties would be "recovered."

Will the government keep its word this time? And as far as the fatalities are concerned, will their relatives and civil society overcome their pain to demand accountability, or will the authorities' justifications prevail once again?

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