BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
Cuba’s government has a solution to the electricity shortages that some experts say might threaten the government’s very existence: energy-saving light bulbs.
Facing repeated blackouts that last 12 hours or longer, the government has been scrambling to find fixes for an aged and rundown power system that serves 11 million residents.
Some $500 million is being invested to resolve the crisis, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro recently announced a ban on importing and selling incandescent light bulbs—the household kind—to be replaced by low-wattage bulbs.
But the nation’s energy problems are so severe that experts say it would take billions of dollars—and five years—to repair them all.
During recent months, Cuba has been suffering its worst power outages in 10 years, reminiscent to those in the early 1990s that helped trigger the 1994 rafter crisis and sent thousands of refugees to South Florida’s shores.
‘The Achilles’ heel to political and economic stability is going to be the power structure—the electrical power structure,’’ said Jorge R. Pi�on, a former Amoco oil man who studies energy issues at the University of Miami. “Electricity is important, in some cases, as important as food.’‘
Cuba’s energy crisis is the product of an aging and deteriorated power structure hit by several hurricanes in the past few years. There are seven power plants on the island, which together have a capacity of 3,200 megawatts. They are currently running at about 50 percent capacity, Pi�on said, but need to be at 65 percent to meet demand.
Daunting energy challenges have hit the island since the early 1990s, when the collapse of communism cut off the flow of cheap Soviet oil. Cuban officials then started to run power plants with lower-quality oil that ate away at the already decaying plants, Pi�on said.
The Antonio Guiteras plant in the central province of Matanzas, which provides about 12 percent of the nation’s power, collapsed for eight months last year. Unable to use other plants to make up for the gap, the result was long power outages, rotting food and frayed nerves.
`DRIVING PEOPLE NUTS’
‘‘It’s driving people nuts,’’ said Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert at the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington. “The electrical grids just don’t work. They haven’t invested in their infrastructure. It’s back to the bad old days that people thought faded into history.’‘
This month the Ministry of Basic Industries announced that 400,000 incandescent bulbs were being replaced by lower-wattage bulbs as part of ‘‘Operation Save Energy.’’ Roberto Gonz�lez Vale, a ministry specialist, said the goal was to replace 1.2 million bulbs in Havana alone, the EFE news agency reported.
Had the new bulbs, imported from China, been installed in June, the capital would have seen 20 percent fewer power outages, Gonz�lez said.
The bulbs joined other measures announced last year, such as trimming school and work days by half an hour.
And while Venezuela’s Hugo Ch�vez is now supplying Cuba with up to 90,000 barrels of oil at cut-rate prices, the sudden availability of better quality Venezuelan oil has done little to stem the crisis.
In October, Castro fired Minister of Basic Industries Marcos Portal for not warning the government of the impending disaster. Portal was a Castro family protege who had been in his post since 1983.
His replacement, Yadira Garc�a Vera, has appeared on Cuban TV several times this summer promising improvements. She warned that most of the generating plants would be undergoing repairs in the coming months, leaving the system 800 megawatts short, which would require scheduled blackouts.
Some improvements have been achieved, said Elizardo S�nchez, a human-rights activist in Havana who heads the nongovernment Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
‘‘Compared to the first 20 days in July, when practically half the country was in the dark, the electricity situation has improved in the last two weeks for the whole island,’’ S�nchez said in a telephone interview. “Still, an atmosphere of energy insecurity persists.’‘
S�nchez said the power outages were among the causes of the number of small protests that erupted in Cuba last month, which included people throwing rocks at government buildings.
And last month, Castro said $500 million would be spent on 40,000 new transformers, plus power lines and poles.
‘‘It won’t take much more time,’’ Castro said at a July 26 speech celebrating the anniversary of his revolution. “You can trust what I say.’‘
A year earlier, he had promised there would be no shortages. “By the first quarter of next year, you can all sleep peacefully.’‘
Pi�on scoffs at the $500 million program, saying it’s a small-time fix for a big-time job.
‘‘That’s like having a ‘56 Chevy that’s falling apart, and you buy new tires,’’ Pi�on said. “He needs billions of dollars for the power plants and needs fuel oil, so he’s getting new tires.’‘
Herald special correspondent Saudy Pe�a contributed to this report.