By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune
It’s Tuesday evening in the working-class neighborhood of Cerro, but the lights are out and the streets are pitch-black.
Illuminated only by the occasional battery-powered lamp or by a passing automobile, residents sat on stoops or on street corners waiting out another one of the lengthy blackouts that have gripped this island nation since May.
“Without electricity, we can’t do anything,” said a 49-year-old woman who asked not to be identified out of concern that it could trigger a reprisal from the government. “I don’t know why they can’t fix it.”
While power outages have been common in Cuba for years, the duration of the current blackouts—some have lasted 12 hours or longer—has added to the difficulties of life in a nation where scratching out a living is a daily test of fortitude.
It also has called into question Cuban President Fidel Castro’s assertions that the island’s moribund economy is on the mend, according to diplomats and experts.
“If they don’t have the resources to take care of this, then the economic growth Cuban officials are boasting about doesn’t match the reality on the ground,” said Daniel Erickson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group.
In recent months, Castro has touted Cuba’s strengthened economic ties with Venezuela and China while raising pensions and salaries for workers, who typically earn about $12 a month but receive free health care and other services.
The number of foreign visitors, who are an important source of hard currency, increased last year, and the high international price of nickel, a key export, also is providing an economic boost, experts say.
Billboards posted in Havana show a smiling Castro and the words “We are doing well.”
Yet despite the upbeat assessment, a top Cuban official acknowledged that efforts to improve the nation’s antiquated electrical system have failed to keep pace with surging demand during the sweltering summer months.
“We know all the complexities this holds for the family, for the economy and for the country,” Yadira Garcia, minister of basic industry, said on state television July 4.
Hurricane exacerbates problem
Garcia and other Cuban officials vowed that the blackouts would diminish in the coming weeks, but that was before Hurricane Dennis plowed through Cuba, killing 16 people, downing power lines and causing an estimated $1.4 billion in damage, according to official reports.
The power outages, which have been more severe outside Havana, the nation’s capital, have shut down offices and forced residents to sleep on roofs or in doorways to cope with the punishing tropical heat.
Cubans complain that frozen fish, poultry and other foods have spoiled during the blackouts, and water service also is cut off.
Others lament that they cannot watch their favorite soap opera, “Splendor,” broadcast on state-run television at night.
Some Cuban-Americans are shipping candles to family members on the island because the blackouts are so acute.
Cuban officials have regularized the power cuts in many areas so residents can at least prepare for them.
“There is more time without electricity than with it,” said one Cuban from the western province of Pinar del Rio.
The woman, who like all Cubans interviewed requested that her name not be published, described one day last week when there was no electricity in Pinar del Rio except for a four-hour period.
Many Cubans said they watched Garcia’s July 4 television presentation but are divided on whether she can ease the crisis.
Garcia was appointed to her post in late 2004 after her predecessor was removed following similar energy problems last summer.
“It will get better in the next year,” said a 42-year-old economist standing on a sidewalk in Cerro on Tuesday evening. “I have not lost my faith in the revolution.”
But Elizardo Sanchez, an opposition activist who heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said Cubans have shown their anger over the blackouts by scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls.
Sanchez said Cuban officials are concerned enough to have increased police patrols in some Havana neighborhoods.
Cubans have been living with blackouts since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the island’s cheap supply of fuel for its power plants.
In recent years, Cuba increased its domestic oil production and also is receiving 90,000 barrels of discounted oil from Venezuela daily.
But Cuba’s locally produced crude oil is of poor quality, requiring the electric power plants that burn it to undergo frequent and lengthy maintenance, officials say.
The power stations, which are 25 to 35 years old, often break down.
Replacement parts are difficult and costly to acquire because of the modernization or closing of the companies that once made them.
“This is an infrastructure problem that is going to last a while,” said one Havana-based diplomat. “They don’t have the money to fix it.”