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Posted July 13, 2005 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By Mary Murray | NBC News

Summer’s searing temperatures getting you down? Just be glad you don’t live in Cuba where daily blackouts make it about impossible to beat this year’s record heat.

The island’s electric company began dimming the lights last month after it began rotating its most important power plants off line for regular maintenance.

At first, the blackouts were tolerable, four hours twice a week. But by mid-month they had grown to daily six-hour ordeals.

The island’s power grid, which has the capacity to produce 3,200 megawatts a day, is barely producing half of that.

But, a recent hot spell caused a major meltdown. The Antonio Guiteras generator, located some 60 miles east of the capital, broke down for more than a full day, causing an energy deficit of more than 70 percent.

“It’s enough to drive anyone crazy,” moaned Ral Jimenez, who said he “barely survived” the 18-hour blackout that hit his crowded neighborhood in Central Havana.

His neighbor, Luisa Diaz, described the blackouts as “exhausting.”

Returning home from her factory job, the 42-year old machinist said she braces for her “daily fight with the refrigerator. I’m either worried about it breaking, mopping up a pool of water because it defrosted, or throwing out food.”

The outages have not only sparked widespread complaining, but random incidents of protests.

Residents of two Havana high rises report that during nighttime blackouts ó when it’s too dark to identify the culprits ó some people hurl empty glass bottles and cans off their balconies while others shout anti-government slogans.

Appeal for patience
Yadira Garcia, Cuba’s Minister of Basic Industry ó the oveseer of power generation ó went on national TV last week to beg for people’s patience while offering a cautious hope that things should begin improving later this month.

“But, no one can guarantee that there won’t be new breakdowns in the old equipment,” Garcia said.

Age, she said, is a big part of the problem. Cuba’s seven principal power plants, built with now outdated technology from the former Soviet bloc, have been generating electricity for over three decades. 

Breakdowns are routine, said Garcia, and parts have to be imported.

“Sometimes replacement parts aren’t even manufactured any more and have to be made special to order just for us.”

Upgrading just one thermoelectric plant outside of Havana is costing $20 million.

That’s why she’s warning the public to “prepare for a very tense summer.”

Hurricane Dennis

And that was before Hurricane Dennis tore across the island this past weekend, knocking down over a thousand electric poles, 36 high tension towers and causing more than $1.4 billion in material damage.

For Digna Despaigne, 42, this only makes matters worst, and guarantees no respite from her daily grind. She wakes at 4 a.m. every day to cook her 5-month-old son’s baby food and iron his cloth diapers.

“My whole life is turned upside down. I’m always tired.”

Still, she considers herself lucky. “We live on the top floor apartment so we get to use the roof to sleep.” People’s biggest complaint has to do with the nighttime blackouts. It’s hard to sleep without the use of an air conditioner or fan.

Almost 96 percent of Cuba has electricity, comparable to developed countries and far ahead of most in Latin America.

Conversely, blackouts have plagued the communist government since 1990, when Soviet oil shipments to the island began drying up. With energy as its Achilles heel, Havana has invested over $150 million in developing its own petroleum production.

While Cuba now can generate 90 percent of its electricity from local gas and oil extraction, its high-sulfur crude easily clogs the thermoelectric machinery and requires expensive cleaning. So, the island relies partly on Venezuelan imports, quality crude that burns cleaner.

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