Havana Darkness: The Sad Return Of Cuba's Rolling Blackouts
Blackouts were common across Cuba during the 1990s. Today, the country is once again in the midst of an energy crisis as power shortages push Cubans' patience to the limits, and remind many of the decades of government failings.
HAVANA — My mother fanned me with a notebook on hot nights during the blackouts of the 1990s and the 2000s. I would sleep while she fought against fatigue, mosquitoes and pain in her arms. If she stopped, exhausted, I would wake up to complain.
A candle flame was the only light source. If my mother cooked, you had to stay still in the dark in the living room. If someone went to shower, they took the light source with them. The flame moved according to the priorities of the relatives. There was no other way.
After Soviet fall
I have few memories of the blackouts of the 1990s, almost all of them tinged with childish innocence: games in the street or neighbors' conversations in the doorway. At home, to kill the tedium, we used to count the cars that passed by. The nights seemed endless. On the other side of the road, the buildings were still lit. We used to say, “That building wasn’t chosen for a power cut today” or “a leader probably lives there.”
The blackouts that occurred in Cuba after the fall of the USSR. mean there were 12, 10 or sometimes only 8 hours of electricity a day.
Darkness was the perfect cover for the proliferation of crimes.
More than electricity generation, it was a fuel problem. Until 1991, Cuba exchanged one ton of sugar for seven or eight tons of oil with the Russians (the exchange rate was in their favor). With the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that exchange came to an end. Cuba imported 98% of the necessary fuel and, by August 1991, the reserves had been exhausted. It was then that the “peacetime special period” was declared — a euphemism.
Power outages — and hunger — turned into an ideal setting for thieves. Darkness was the perfect cover for the proliferation of crimes. On one of those blackout nights, my mother lost her Chinese bicycle, the extension of her legs. Anyone who lived through that time knows what a Chinese bicycle represented: there were 500,000 in the country in 1991 and a million in 1994. Back then, everyone pedaled miles and miles. There was no gasoline.
"Creole" stoves of kerosene and oil saved kitchens. Sometimes when turned on, they produced an explosive sound. My parents were used to it, but the sound always scared me. To make matters worse, the ingestion of kerosene was one of the most common childhood domestic accidents in those times.
They were critical years due to the scarcity of almost everything, and the blackouts represent the worst memory of that decade.
A man walks home by night in Santiago de Cuba.
Not enough power to cook
A 2010 study revealed that at least 20% of the electricity expenditure of the 2.5 million households in the country was spent on cooking food, a fact that introduced the need to seek alternatives to reduce electricity consumption. This is why clay devices were sold in several Cuban municipalities to supposedly multiply the capacity of electric burners.
But the Energy Revolution, in its dependency on electricity as the energy source for cooking, did not foresee that, in future times of blackouts, families would not have alternatives to prepare their food. Nor that, at the end of 2011, the electric cooking equipment delivered would break as it reached the end of its life.
I remember the desperate afternoons. My mother came home from work and there was no power. How to cook? The liquefied gas bullet was the alternative, but no matter how much we saved it, it was never enough. There were several nights that we only ate bread.
Sometimes, a neighbor with gas heated the milk of a child in the neighborhood or the food of a sick person. It was common to see someone crossing the street, pot in hand, looking for a friendly place to cook.
On blackout nights, my neighbors would gather to listen to the soap opera on a Chinese dynamo radio that picked up the television signal. After the show ended, everyone went home to wait for them to turn on the power. When the lights came back on, the sound of the city was like a home run in the stadium.
Crisis and scarcity
Protests swept across Cuba in July 2021, mainly triggered by blackouts. Hundreds were arrested. An explosive social cocktail was created by: an economy in ruins (there was a 13% decrease in GDP between January 2020 and September 2021), electricity cuts, shortages, inflation, a collapsed health system, the pandemic, a lack of government leadership, and greater visibility of the repression of those who question power. Cubans took to the streets like never before since 1959.
In terms of energy, few government promises have been kept. 52% of the generation depends on Cuban crude, with high levels of sulfur, which requires more frequent maintenance.
The plan to transform the country's energy matrix and reach 22% generation from renewable sources by 2022 has been an illusion. Cuba has hardly reached 6%. That plan has been hit by delays in the installation of wind farms, problems in the installation of a bioelectric plant and limitations on the importation of solar panels.
The current blackouts remind us that we Cubans have a kind of curse that always returns.
However, it is true that nothing was as bad as 1994 when there were 344 days with blackouts.
Less investment in hotels and more in energy is the demand today of those who understand that this is not a problem that will be solved quickly. They know the energy crisis deserves more attention, priority and budget resources.
At the same time, the current crisis is just one example of the mismanagement that seems to focus only on tourism and neglects other sectors such as transport, food production, and retail. Crisis and scarcity, crisis and scarcity, crisis and scarcity is almost the only thing that we have heard – and experienced – in recent years. Any good news is diluted by the foreshadowing of those two words.
The current blackouts remind us that we Cubans have a kind of curse that always returns. The children who were fanned yesterday are the parents who fan today when the nights get hot.
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