‘There will be more failures’: frustration as Cuba’s infrastructure crumbles

‘There will be more failures’: frustration as Cuba’s infrastructure crumbles

HAVANA, Oct. 5th Yamile Sánchez learned from her colonial-era window into the street in central Havana, a large pile of avocados visible behind her. “The damage used to be sorted out much faster,” she said. “Even when the storms were worse.”

The avocados, dusty green in contrast to Sanchez’s worn blue shutters, each had a bruise on one side. They had fallen during the passage of Hurricane Ian last week, as had Cuba’s entire electricity grid.

She was selling the windfall, avocados being the only thing cheap and available on the Caribbean island right now.

Disintegrating buildings, potholed roads and an ossified transport system have left Cubans in little doubt their infrastructure is collapsing, but three major disasters in the last six months have flabbergasted the country.

In May, 47 people were killed when one of the finest hotels in Havana, the Saratoga, was blown apart by a gas leak which sent the facade collapsing onto one of the city’s busiest streets.

“Since I arrived early in the morning I had smelled gas,” said Martha Borrell Zamora, who had been teaching a maths class next door. Her blackboard bulged towards her, the windows shattered and the “children were very scared”.

In August, a lightning strike ignited gases at Cuba’s main oil storage facility in Matanzas, starting an inferno that engulfed four huge tanks and 14 firefighters. Cubans looked at the boyish face of one – Leo Alejandro Doval Pérez de Prado, who was a brilliant student on national service when he died – and despaired.

And last week, after the category 3 hurricane passed over the west of the country, the electricity grid for the entire 777-mile-long country collapsed. The situation was appalling for those in the path in Pinar del Río, but across Cuba scarce food began rotting in people’s refrigerators.

In the Havana neighbourhood of Playa, Juan Diego González was swapping gossip with his friend Esteban Henríquez in the dark. They had been four days without power. “We have taken our food to the houses of friends,” he said.

Henríquez pointed to the trees opposite, where branches had tangled the power cables. “They always used to cut the trees before the storms,” he said. “But this year they didn’t. They’re old things in an old city.”

It is the most repeated complaint: the actions taken by the government in the past were no longer being followed.

The countrywide blackout followed months of regular interruptions due to the moribund state of the generating plants, leaving people to sweat out the summer nights without fans.

This latest misery has led to small-scale protests, with residents taking to the streets to bang pans, some shouting “freedom”. Exile groups have grasped at these as signs of an incipient uprising, and the government shut down the internet, presumably to stop their spread.

But in contrast to furious demonstrations in July last year, these manifestations appear more desperate. The government appear to have met them peacefully. In an editorial in the state newspaper Granma, the ruling communist party talked of “listening to the people” even as it went on to lay responsibility for the whole series of disasters with anyone or anything other than itself:

“Some [adversities] are due to natural events, others due to unfortunate accidents and many due to the enemy’s determination to break our people through hunger and need, using the disastrous monstrosity that is the United States blockade against Cuba.”

Whoever is to blame, Jorge Piñon, a researcher at the University of Texas’s Energy Institute, points out that an inflection point has been reached. Some of Cuba’s biggest electricity plants are more than 45 years old, operating far beyond their expected lifetimes. A greater problem yet is the state of the grid.

“They haven’t done any scheduled maintenance for years,” Piñon said. “But worse still they haven’t done any capital maintenance.”

For those without power and water over the weekend, concerns were more immediate. Food has been hard to find for several years now and a doctor, who asked not to be named, said he is expecting an upsurge in gastrointestinal problems as people eat spoiled meat and dairy.

In Havana’s most genteel suburb of Vedado, a pathos-filled scene developed late on Saturday night, four days after the storm. On one side of Línea, a main avenue, the electricity had been restored and the cafes and bars were full.

On the other side, streets led into utter darkness and out of these people emerged banging pots. Government representatives arrived, as did the police and the rapid response units used to cheerlead for the state. Arguments flared in the middle of the road and watching on was a couple, a pair of tiny babies in their arms.

No one doubts the engineers tending the ailing electricity plants and grid are miracle workers – by Monday power had reportedly been reinstated across the island barring Pinar del Río, the province where the hurricane hit – but insiders say morale is suffering.

“There are very competent men working in Unión Eléctrica but increasingly they don’t ask for promotion,” said one. “Everyone knows there will be more failures, and no one wants to be the one held responsible when it goes wrong.”

In central Havana, Yamile Sánchez said the community spirit that holds Cuba together is also beginning to fray. “People used to help but now they don’t want to,” she said.

But Cubans always say that, and she immediately proved herself wrong by giving a passerby two of her avocados, resolutely refusing to be paid.