YouEmile Sanchez leans from his colonial-era window into an alleyway in central Havana, behind him a huge pile of avocados can be seen. “The damage was resolved very quickly,” she said. “Even when the storms were worse.”
The avocados, dusty green in contrast to the blue shutters Sanchez was wearing, each had bruises on one side. They fell during the passage of Hurricane Ian last week, as did Cuba’s entire power grid.
She was selling out unexpectedly, avocados were the only thing cheap and available on a Caribbean island right now.
Shattered buildings, potholed roads and an unstable transportation system have left Cubans with little doubt that their infrastructure is collapsing, but three major disasters in the past six months have rocked the country.
In May, 47 people were killed in one of Havana’s finest hotels, Saratoga, which was blown up by a gas leak that collapsed one of the city’s busiest streets. “I’ve smelled gas since I arrived early in the morning,” said Martha Borrell Zamora, who was teaching a math class next door. His blackboard moved towards him, 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, engulfing four giant tanks and 14 firefighters. Cubans looked at the childish face of one – Leo Alejandro Doval Pérez de Prado, a brilliant student of the national service when he died – and were dismayed.
And last week, the electricity grid for the entire 777-mile-long country collapsed after a Category 3 hurricane passed over the country’s west. The situation was dire for those on the way in Pinar del Río, but scarce food in Cuba began to rot in people’s refrigerators.
In the Havana neighborhood of Playa, Juan Diego González was trading gossip with his friend Esteban Henriquez in the dark. They were without electricity for four days. “We’ve taken our food to friends’ houses,” he said.
Henriquez pointed to the opposite trees, where branches had tangled electrical wires. “They always cut down trees before a storm,” he said. “But this year they didn’t. Those are the old things in the old town.”
This is the most frequent complaint: the action taken by the government in the past was not being followed.
The nationwide blackout occurred after months of regular interruptions due to the dilapidated condition of the generating plants, leaving people sweating on hot summer nights without fans.
This latest misery has sparked small-scale protests, with residents thronging the streets, some chanting “Azadi” slogans. Exiled groups have interpreted these as a sign of an early insurgency, and the government has shut down the Internet, possibly to stop their spread.
But unlike the furious demonstrations in July last year, these expressions appear more desperate. The government seems to have met him calmly. In an editorial in the state newspaper Granma, the ruling Communist Party spoke of “listening to the people”, even placing responsibility for the full range of disasters with someone other than himself:
“some [adversities] are due to natural events, others are due to unfortunate accidents and many are due to the enemy’s determination to break our people through hunger and necessity, using the devastating monstrosity that is the United States blockade against Cuba .
Whoever is to blame, an inflection point has been reached, explains George Pion, a researcher at the Texas Energy Institute. Some of the largest power plants in Cuba are over 45 years old, operating far beyond their expected lifespan. An even bigger problem is the state of the grid.
“They haven’t done any scheduled maintenance for years,” Pinone said. “But what’s worse is that they haven’t done any capital maintenance yet.”
For those without electricity and water over the weekend, concerns were more immediate. Food has been hard to find for many years and one doctor, who asked not to be named, said he was expecting an increase in gastrointestinal problems as people eat spoiled meat and dairy.
In Havana’s most civilized suburb of Vedado, a terrifying scene developed late Saturday, four days after the storm. On one side of Linea, a main thoroughfare, electricity was restored and cafes and bars were full.
On the other hand, the streets turned dark and people came out laughing. Government representatives arrived, as did the police and rapid response units cheerleading for the state. An argument broke out in the middle of the road and they were watching a couple, a pair of small children in their lap.
No one doubts that the engineers looking after sick power plants and grids are miracle workers – by Monday power was reportedly restored across the island except Pinar del Río, the province where the storm struck – but inside Sources say morale is suffering. “There are very capable men working at Union Elétrica, but increasingly they don’t ask for promotions,” said one. “Everyone knows there will be more failures, and no one wants to be held responsible when they go wrong.”
In central Havana, Yamil Sanchez said the community spirit that holds Cuba together is also beginning to erupt. “People used to help but now they don’t want to,” she said.
But Cubans always say so, and she immediately proved herself wrong by giving her two avocados to a passerby, refusing to pay.