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Posted October 15, 2004 by publisher in Business In Cuba

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BY TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News

It’s deja vu all over again in Cuba, as blackouts now plague the nation almost a decade after near-economic collapse regularly plunged the island into darkness.

Looking to reassure the populace, government leaders on Thursday sacked a veteran official responsible for electricity, as ordinary Cubans scrambled to adjust.

The trouble began at 3 a.m. on May 5, when a 16-year-old thermoelectric plant in the Matanzas province east of Havana broke down and a turbine rotor was damaged, Cuban officials said. Workers took the rotor to France for repairs, but when they reinstalled it in September, it didn’t work.

Sporadic blackouts had been occurring throughout the summer. Most Cubans assumed Hurricane Charley and other storms were to blame. Then, a few weeks ago, the government disclosed the rotor disaster and announced that there would be daily planned blackouts until at least the end of the year.

Cubans are exasperated, largely because they depend more on electricity today than they did during the last energy crisis, triggered by the loss of nearly $6 billion a year in Soviet subsidies.

To conserve energy, Cuban authorities are closing 110 businesses, shortening the workday and school day by a half hour, extending daylight-saving time until October 2005 and shifting production schedules. They’re also telling people to be patient and work together.

President Fidel Castro has gone on national television three times in recent days to say he’s doing all that he can to restore service. Some Cubans aren’t convinced: in Las Villas, east of Havana, someone put up a sign reading, “Fidel, leave Bush alone and work on electricity.”

A government notice Thursday said that Marcos Portal Leon, 59, minister of basic industries, had been fired for failing to prevent the energy crisis and ignoring the advice of government leaders. Yadira Garcia Vera, a Communist Party leader, will replace him.

Nearly 96 percent of all Cubans have electricity, more than at any time in the nation’s history, outpacing most of Latin America.

Demand for electricity is growing; workers strung electrical lines to 923,821 Cuban homes between 1990 and 2003.

Restrictions on the import of electrical goods into Cuba remain because of the last crisis. But that hasn’t stopped Cubans from snapping up 6.1 million electrical devices - from TVs and radios to curling irons - since 1996, according to a government estimate.

The blackouts are forcing people to do without their electronic goodies for six to 14 hours a day.

For Marlen Corrales, 24, a student, that means she can’t use a blender to whip up her 2-year-old daughter’s baby food.

“I have to get a strainer and mash the food through it with a fork like I guess they must have done 100 years ago,” she said. “I can’t use my rice maker, either. These things make life difficult.”

Some Cubans accustomed to fans or air conditioners sleep on rooftops or balconies.

“The blackouts have changed the way we live,” said Maria Caridad Rivero, 60, who rushed to cook dinner before sundown.

Cubans have no choice but to accept their straits, said Sonia Hernandez, 34, a store employee who plans her life around the blackouts.

“Of course I accept the government’s position,” she said. “If I didn’t, my only choice would be to find a gun and shoot myself.”

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