Above photo: Firefighters try to control the flames in a fuel tank during the early hours of Saturday, August 6, in Matanzas, Cuba. Twitter/@BrunoRguezP.
NOTE: The economic blockade forced on Cuba by the United States has a direct effect on Cuba’s ability to maintain its infrastructure and to have the resources on hand to manage disasters like the oil explosion. Sixty years of US sanctions has cost the island nation of 11.4 million people $150 billion. This disaster highlights the cruelty of the US’ economic war on Cuba. Now is the time for the US to take Cuba off the Terror List, end the sanctions and provide any requested aid.
ACERE writes: “This fire, the largest in Cuban history, comes at a time when Cuba is currently undergoing an energy crisis due to soaring global fuel costs, as well as over-exploited and obsolete infrastructure. This oil tank fire will undoubtedly only further exacerbate the electricity outages that Cubans are suffering from in this hot summer. The resources that the government will be forced to put into disaster response will also have a negative impact on the general well-being of Cubans, who are already suffering an economic and humanitarian crisis due to the pandemic, the global economic downturn, and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and continued under President Biden. The U.S. Embassy in Havana has expressed its condolences and put out a statement that U.S. law “authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba.” However, U.S. policy creates real and significant barriers to organizations trying to provide assistance to Cubans, both in the United States and abroad. For example, Cuba sanctions prevent U.S. organizations from providing urgent assistance due to the need for Commerce Department export licenses and the lack of commercial air cargo service between the U.S. and Cuba. Cuba’s inclusion in the State Sponsor of Terrorism List means that banks, in both the United States and abroad, are reluctant to process humanitarian donations. And while donative remittances (which can be sent for humanitarian purposes) have been recently re-authorized by the Biden administration, there is no mechanism in place to send them, as the U.S. government continues to refuse to use the established Cuban entities that have historically processed them. Moreover, payment and fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle, will not process any transactions destined or related to Cuba due to U.S. sanctions. The response to this disaster should come primarily from the U.S. government. The Presidential Policy Directive, an Obama administration policy guide that appears to remain in effect, specifically mentions U.S. cooperation with Cuba “in areas of mutual interest, including diplomatic, agricultural, public health, and environmental matters, as well as disaster preparedness and response.” The State Department and the Department of Defense have primary responsibility in coordinating disaster responses, and should be doing so now.”
At least one person has died, 17 firefighters are missing, and 121 people have been injured in a huge fire that broke out on Friday, August 5, in a fuel depot in Matanzas, in western Cuba, 60 miles east of Havana.
The fire started on Friday evening after a lighting hit a fuel tank in Matanzas, and then in the early hours of Saturday it spread to a second tank, causing a big explosion around 5:00 A.M. while government officials and firefighter teams were trying to control the first explosion. All throughout Saturday Cuban authorities worked tirelessly to prevent the fire from reaching a third tank. The storage facility consists of eight storage tanks overall.
The governments of Mexico and Venezuela have already sent expert teams to help the Cubans in the midst of the catastrophe that has shaken the island nation subjected to more than 60 years of an illegal US blockade. The total economic, financial and trade blockade against Cuba has recently created an energy crisis there, affecting electricity generation, among other criminal consequences. The storage facility under fire is an important hub for distribution of fuel to different thermoelectrical plants in the country.
The Cuban News Agency (ACN) reported that the impacted container was at 50% of its capacity of 300,000 barrels and that the lightning arrestor it had could not protect the tank as the discharge was of extremely high power.
Cuban authorities have reported that at least 121 people were injured in the blast, of whom 36 remained hospitalized, five in critical condition. One person was announced dead, and 17 firefighters are still missing. More than 1,000 civilians were evacuated from the area.
ACN had reported a few hours earlier that there were 67 injured: three in very critical state, three in critical state, 12 in delicate state, 20 in less critical state and 29 with light injures. The injured are being treated at the Faustino Pérez Provincial Hospital. It has been warned that the death toll may rise.
The Presidency of Cuba announced that the 17 disappeared are firefighters who were in the area closest to the fire trying to control the first explosion. As a precautionary measure, around 1,000 people have been evacuated, reported the Governor of Matanzas Mario Sabines Lorenzo.
The president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel instructed the relevant authorities to continue the search for the disappeared and to provide proper care to their relatives.
“We have requested help and advice from friendly countries with experiences in fuel issues. Strategies for recovery are already being outlined,” President Díaz-Canel said.
The Cuban president stated in a tweet, “We express deep gratitude to the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile, which have promptly offered solidarity and material aid in the face of this complex situation. Cuba also appreciates the offer of technical advice from the United States.”
Díaz-Canel visited the scene around Friday midnight and held meetings with officials in charge of the emergency response operation. He also met the injured and their relatives in the hospital where treatment is being carried out. Later he returned to Havana and spent the entire Saturday coordinating the emergency response, as state-run television broadcast live coverage of the unfolding disaster.
Before the second explosion, the Cuban president had posted on Twitter that first responders were “trying to avert the spread of the flames and any spill of fuel” into the Matanzas Bay. Military helicopters were spraying seawater on the nearby storage tanks as smoke reached Havana and residents were warned to stay indoors to avoid acid rain.
Meanwhile social media networks again became the stage for fake news and media warfare, typically surrounding countries under US attack, distorting casualty figures, scale and consequences of the catastrophic incident. The fire in Cuba seems very similar to the Tacoa Fire that occurred in La Guaira, Venezuela, in 1982, in which 53 firefighters and 14 electricity company workers died. The total human toll of that fire was 150 dead and 300 injured.
Cuban authorities are engaged in a total and comprehensive emergency response involving the highest authorities in the government, as well as the military and the Cuban society as a whole, along with updated reports on casualties. A strategy has also been employed to neutralize the smear campaigns that are coming from Florida, USA, as usual.