International solidarity key as Cuba fights to recover from tragic port fire

Photo: Mourners pay tribute to the firefighters who died responding to the catastrophic fire. Credit: @PresidenciaCuba

On August 5, a lightning strike and lightning surge protector failure caused a massive fire at the Supertanker Oil Base in Matanzas, Cuba. The fire exploded one tank and then spread to three additional oil storage tanks. As firefighters from Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela fought to quell the disaster over the course of five days, the fire claimed three lives with 117 people injured and 4,000 people evacuated.

Tragically, 14 firefighters died in the unprecedented fire. The Cuban people mourn their sacrifice, with President Miguel Díaz-Canel declaring two days of official mourning. After funerary honors, the martyred firefighters will be interred at the Pantheon of the Fallen in Defense situated in Matanzas.

This is a disaster of enormous significance for the Cuban people. The tragic loss of life and injury is coupled with the loss of precious oil and the destruction of its largest docking and processing port. Long lines resulting from fuel shortages and extended blackouts of 12 to 18 hours have compounded the suffering. The fire burned 40% of Cuba’s oil resources stored in the Matanzas terminal. 

Additional challenges are posed in the face of Cuba’s ongoing economic and energy sector struggles under the throttling impacts of the 60-year U.S.-imposed blockade. The effect of the blockade is evident in every detail: Cuba is unable to import what it needs to maintain infrastructure and equipment. This event could cause a humanitarian crisis and even greater suffering for the Cuban people. 

Cuba is not alone

While the U.S. government gave lip service and merely offered “technical assistance” through phone calls, other nations have stepped in with solidarity and support. Teams of Mexican and Venezuelan firefighters arrived immediately with fire suppression equipment to fight side by side with their Cuban counterparts. Iran also helped to extinguish the fire. The Dominican Republic delivered 40 tons of medical aid.

Russia responded by deploying the largest tanker in the world to bring 700,000 barrels of crude oil to the country. Valued at $70 million, it is the equivalent of half of what Cuba lost in the disaster. To unload the oil from this tanker, along with two others sent by Venezuela, Cubans will have to send smaller vessels into the open ocean to unload. They will make use of floating storage facilities, forced to risk spills and take additional days to get the fuel to shore. 

In a major offer, Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday pledged to help rebuild the damaged terminal. “Cuba knows that it can count on our scientific, technical, engineering and worker support,” he said, reassuring Cuba that it would always have, “the support of the peoples of the world and of the compassionate, courageous and human-centered governments.”

U.S. targets Cuba’s energy

Energy is critical for any nation to meet its people’s needs. And this is precisely why the U.S. government has cut off Cuba’s oil supplies.

“As a matter of policy, since 2019, the U.S. has been trying to deprive Cuba from receiving fuel from any country,” said Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a July 29 speech to U.S. activists in Havana. “So it punishes, it sanctions or threatens with sanctions, shipping companies, ports, refineries, oil exporters, that will ship oil to Cuba. And we need oil for our daily life … for air conditioning, for refrigerating our food, for hospitals, for our schools, for industry.

“We need electricity for movement. We need fuel. And yet the U.S. government decided in 2019 to deprive Cuba of the availability of fuel.” In 2019, the U.S. government under President Trump threatened to sanction the ships that deliver oil from Venezuela to Cuba.

Before the fire, Cuba was already forced to schedule outages across every zone to conserve energy during the scorching summer heat and lessen the strain on the country’s aging electrical plants. The necessary blackouts cause hardship, slow down production and hamper economic recovery. Yet, in spite of its aging infrastructure, Cuba is employing creative energy and resource management innovations that have allowed it to maintain its economy.

The United States must act now to reverse Cuba’s outrageous inclusion on its official list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” It must begin to normalize diplomatic relations and end the blockade. It is Cuba that is the victim of U.S.-sponsored terrorism. In the meantime, U.S. solidarity organizations including IFCO/Pastors for Peace, Puentes de Amor, The Hatuey Project, the ANSWER Coalition and Code Pink are collecting donations to deliver humanitarian supplies that will treat the burn victims: antibiotics, gauze, salve, IV drips, saline and more.

We must continue to stand in solidarity with Cuba during this tragic crisis.

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