Car drivers line up to get their tanks filled at a petrol station in Havana, on September 19 2019. Picture: AFP/YAMIL LAGE
Car drivers line up to get their tanks filled at a petrol station in Havana, on September 19 2019. Picture: AFP/YAMIL LAGE

Havana — Ernesto Mirabal gave up a night’s sleep for a few litres of petrol at a Havana service station, where lining up for five hours has become the norm during a severe fuel shortage on the Communist-run island.

Since President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s shock announcement on September 11 that the country was facing a fuel shortfall, widespread uncertainty and a degree of panic have gripped the nation.

Mirabal, a taxi driver, had no choice but to while away his sleeping hours queuing for gas. “I got here a little after 11 o’clock and was able to put gas in the car at four in the morning. I had to do it because I had a customer to pick up at 7 o’clock. I’ve got enough fuel for today and tomorrow now. But the day after tomorrow I have to start all over again.”

Drastic measures

Images of long lines of people waiting endless hours outside service stations have flooded Cubans’ Twitter and Facebook timelines over the past week.

WhatsApp groups have sprung up around the burning question of the day: “Where can I get fuel?”

In public companies and offices, schedules have been cut back, air conditioners have hummed to a halt, and electricity blackouts imposed for a few hours a day. Some companies have sent their workers home.

Garbage accumulates in the streets as collections are cut back, a blow to the health ministry’s battle against resurgent dengue fever, a deadly strain of which is worrying authorities.

The drastic measures in place for the past week remind many of the “special period”, the dark days of extreme shortages in the 1990s which followed the collapse of Cuba’s main sponsor, the Soviet Union.

Some measures, indeed, mirror those of 25 years ago as the nation tries to cope. With public transport reduced to bare minimum service, traffic police flag down drivers of state-owned vehicles to demand they take on passengers.

However, the starkest example of Cuba’s fuel crisis can be seen in the sugar cane plantations, where oxen are being brought into replace the machines that power the country’s biggest export.

Panic

“People think the fuel will run out and so everyone is trying to accumulate as much as possible,” said Omar Everleny, an economist. “They believe things will get even more complicated, despite what the authorities say.”

Díaz-Canel promised a return to “relative normality” by October. The government is keeping up a barrage of reassuring messages, with the president calling on citizens to “think like a country” and stand together at this time of need.

Despite an official prohibition, many motorists fill up jerrycans at service stations, in addition to their cars. Díaz-Canel has blamed the shortages on increasingly aggressive US sanctions against Cuba and its oil-source ally Venezuela.

“Imperialism is not going to ruin our lives or take our sleep away,” the president tweeted on Thursday as the crisis entered its second week. “We are facing up to this situation, we are implementing systematic economy measures, we are growing and we will win.”

Like many others, however, Everleny, the economist, doesn’t buy the government line. “If the country is paralysed, where will the growth come from?” he asked, citing a decline in tourist arrivals from Europe. Cruise ships that brought thousands of American visitors every week have been banned since June, as part of the US sanctions.

The fuel shortage is indicative of the country’s currency crisis. Cuba has no alternative to oil from Venezuela which is paid for in part by sending Cuban doctors to Caracas to shore up a collapsing medical system.

And as for the return to normal promised by Díaz-Canel, Everleny warns: “Normal would mean a return to a period of weak growth and uncertainty.”

AFP