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The Fire in Matanzas: Going Out, or Just Beginning?

Accepting that the litany of disasters that Cuba is enduring is a result of chance would mean letting Díaz-Canel off the hook, when, in reality, it is a symptom of a failed system dragging a country towards its ruin.

La Habana
Fuel tanks burned in the Matanzas fire.
Fuel tanks burned in the Matanzas fire. H. López/Facebook

A plane crashes with 113 people on board; a tornado wipes out hundreds of homes, many of which would have survived if they had not been in such precarious condition; a balcony collapses, killing three girls; a hotel explodes, taking 47 lives; energy generation plants fail daily, and one of its most important facilities burns down... and, in Matanzas, the worst fire in Cuban history frightens everyone.

Not holding Díaz-Canel responsible for this state of affairs would mean accepting that this series of disasters is a question of chance, when, in reality, it is a symptom of a failed system dragging a country towards collapse.

It was not really lightning that set fire to the Matanzas Supertanker Base, but rather the failure of its safety systems; probably because, like everything else in Cuba, they are in dreadful condition due to a lack of maintenance and technological obsolescence.

While there is no proof of this, we know that of the 2,606 megawatts (MW) that the Energy Revolution should generate, in 2021 745MW were out of service due to a lack of maintenance, and another 497 MW were about to be due to equipment exceeding their operating cycle. If this is how they treat the commander's last "feat," what can we expect regarding the maintenance of everything else?

Castroism is falling apart and, as the saying goes, "when it rains, it pours." The catastrophe in Matanzas will heat up the country even after the fire subsides —thanks to the firefighters, or when all the fuel has burned up— starting with Havana, where there were practically no blackouts because the government fears the city's discontent more than the explosion of a nuclear reactor... such that it is fortunate that they will never finish the plant in Juraguá.

Although we do not know the total amount of fuel burned, we know that the tank where the disaster began contained 26,000 cubic meters of national crude oil, while the second to explode stored 52,000. Based on an informed estimate, and breaking it down by type, about 50 million dollars’ worth were incinerated, not counting what the other tanks contained.

That amount is equivalent to all the fuel Cuba consumes in four days, or 22 days of what is imported from Venezuela, its most reliable supplier. As if this were not enough, fuel is so scarce that state enterprises have stopped using most of its equipment that depends on diesel. And, although dengue is running rampant, sanitation efforts are hampered by the fact that there is not enough fuel even for small manual fumigation devices.

An addition problem is that the Matanzas base, now semi-destroyed, is the only one that can accommodate large ships, which means that Cuba will have a very limited capacity to receive ships like the Laguna, the Russian oil tanker that was supposed to dock there on August 14 carrying 700,000 barrels of crude oil. Two ships from Venezuela have had to be diverted to the ports of Santiago de Cuba and Holguin. This catastrophe will drive up the costs of transferring fuel within Cuba, thereby aggravating the crisis.

Unequivocal proof that energy-related tension is at a maximum, as is the country's financial and logistical inability to emerge from this hole quickly, is that the flames were still burning when Havana was already suffering, for the first time, long night-time blackouts... of the type that do away with walls "dedicated" to the President of the Republic.

But the energy deficit is not the only adverse effect that the disaster in Matanzas will entail for Castroism. The black smoke will darken the tourism sector as well.

Cuba is now boring: there is no nightlife, there are very few clubs or bars hopping with people having fun, nor are there theme parks, zoos or aquariums from which children do not emerge crying about the animals' plight. Beyond the country's overexploited beaches, and a few tours through the rubble of socialism here and there, tour operators sell the island's tranquility and safety, but recent times are marring that bucolic image. There are social uprisings and repression that had not been seen in a long time, and they have been covered by the international press; a hotel has exploded; one of the most prestigious magazines in the world, The Economist, has disclosed data utterly discrediting the Cuban health system; there are now blackouts, lines, inflation, and widespread shortages affecting even tourists and, to top it all off, explosions and toxic clouds just a few miles from Varadero.

The recovery of tourism after the pandemic was proving anemic, extraordinarily slow compared to the figures being posted by the Dominican Republic, Cuba's closest competitor. Will the loss of that image of tranquility be related to the fact that Dominican tourism is soaring while Cuba's stagnates?

Slowly, but inexorably, the ruins of the Revolution are shedding that charm of a bygone glory, as that romantic decadence gives way to a sense of real peril. Walking around Havana is a high-risk activity, the night-time blackouts betray the dilapidation of balconies and facades, and even trees that threaten to crush passers-by, while the city's potholes sit like cavities in a hungry city.

Amidst all this, no one knows where the resources will come from to mitigate this debacle. The blackouts are exacerbating nonproductivity, the lack of fuel is accelerating inflation, the coming harvests will be racked by an increasingly critical lack of irrigation, tractors and mechanization in general ... and that means hunger. More hunger. With no hope of the economy reviving, all that remains is to see what ploy Castroism will come up with to mask the energy shortage, and what it will wrest resources from to sustain a collapsed system for a while longer.

Something big must happen in Cuba, and soon! It cannot hold out much longer. Let us pray that another "accident" does not befall us and, even if it is out of fear of Ceausescu’s ghost, that Castroism will make real changes, not fraudulent, superficial ones. Cuba needs some ray of hope.

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