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Posted July 31, 2005 by mattlawrence in Castro's Cuba

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It’s almost midnight on a weeknight, and hundreds of Cubans from across the city are sitting on Havana’s long, curving seawall under the full moon, their only source of light during yet another wave of power blackouts plaguing Cuba this summer.

Even when a hurricane isn’t raking the island, as Dennis did earlier this month, power outages caused by breakdowns in several aging plants have become a near-daily occurrence, fraying the nerves of millions who are living without electricity for five to 10 hours a day.

“My nerves are shot. I’m ready for the psych ward. Every day they shut off the lights!” said Mailin Gonzalez, 35, who came to the seawall with her husband to escape the stifling heat in their apartment during a recent blackout.

A few blocks away, in central Havana, women dressed in housecoats and men in boxer shorts sit on the sidewalk clustered around the glow of a fluorescent, battery-powered lantern as they wait for the lights to blink back on. One mother rocks her baby to sleep in the street; a drowsy little girl rests her head in her father’s lap. Couples snooze on balconies and rooftops, their only privacy the darkness shrouding their neighborhood.

These days, power outages are perhaps the most common topic of conversation across the island as many desperate Cubans vent their frustration at the government’s inability to solve its chronic energy crisis. There have been reports of stones thrown at electric company offices or anti-government graffiti written on walls, said Manuel Cuesta Morua, a dissident who heads a moderate opposition group.

“People feel exhausted, like the last drops that fill the cup of Cuban patience,” Cuesta Morua said. “People express disbelief about the promises and discourse of the authorities.”

Earlier this year President Fidel Castro raised expectations that outages would soon be a thing of the past. Buoyed by cooperation and investment agreements with Venezuela and China, Castro boosted pensions and slightly raised salaries for teachers and doctors. He promised improvements in government subsidized food rations. Billboards emblazoned with Castro’s smiling face and the slogan “We are doing well” went up along Havana’s main avenues. But optimism has faded for many.

“This is abusive. I came home from work and bathed in the dark. I ate in the dark,” said Jose Minueses, 42. “Things were good here when we were with the Soviets. Now we’re going backwards.”

Fluctuating power surges ruined Minueses’ television set and his 50-year-old refrigerator. For now, his only comfort during the outages is a small, battery powered Chinese radio that cost him $10, roughly the equivalent of one month’s salary.

Perhaps worst of all, many Cubans say, is when the electricity goes out in the middle of the night: It is almost impossible to sleep because of the heat and mosquitoes that find their way indoors through open windows.

Blackouts tend to be longer in provincial towns and cities outside Havana.

“They cut [the power] off for 12, 13, or 14 hours,” said Coralis Daisson, 29, who lives in Guantanamo, 550 miles east of Havana. “We sleep on the floor. Many people’s televisions or refrigerators have broken. People who have little children can’t keep their food cold. The meat in the butcher shop goes bad.”

Many Cubans have found inventive ways to cope. They fashion simple kerosene lamps out of beer cans or use car batteries to generate electricity for a TV set or fan.

Some string hundreds of feet of electrical cable over rooftops and across streets to the homes of friends who are served by a different section of the power grid and are therefore not affected by outages at the same time. They share their power and split electrical bills.

“Right now there’s no electricity. Thanks to that cable, we get by. It’s the best way to survive,” said Alfredo Molina, 26, who strung a cable to his friend’s apartment one block away to power his fan and television set.

Average Cubans aren’t the only ones looking for solutions to their energy woes. Castro has waged a media war on homemade appliances and 1950s-era American refrigerators that are used in many households. He said they waste too much energy. In several televised speeches, Castro has urged energy saving measures and promised that more efficient appliances—like new Chinese rice steamers and pressure cookers—will be available at subsidized prices to help ease energy consumption in the future.

“They are our best hope that we get to August without Yadira having to kill herself,” Castro joked during a speech in May, referring to Yadira Garcia, Cuba’s minister of basic industry.

In a televised appearance earlier this month, Garcia said maintenance work on the overtaxed power plants has been delayed because many of the replacement parts must be imported. Blackouts could decrease in the next few weeks if no new maintenance problems—or hurricanes—arise.

“We have had to work in very difficult conditions. I would say [it’s] almost an emergency situation,” Garcia said on July 4.

Cuba has struggled to patch up its tattered electrical system for more than a decade. During the economic crisis in the early 1990s, the loss of subsidized Soviet crude oil led to frequent hours-long blackouts. To make up for the loss in petroleum, Cuba’s power plants were fitted to use local oil, a cheaper alternative to imported crude. The fix, however, brought its own problems. Cuban crude is highly sulfurous and clogs machinery more often and forces plants to close down frequently for maintenance.

The Venezuelan government, Cuba’s most important ally, has approved $20 million in low interest financing to support a project to improve Cuba’s power grid, Venezuela’s government Bank of Economic and Social Development said in a statement from Caracas recently. It is one of several cooperation agreements between Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But some Cubans were not optimistic about seeing improvements in their electricity crisis anytime soon.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Molina said. “I’m tired of hearing that things will be resolved and then they stay the same.”

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