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Cubans reliving power cut nightmares

dpadpa 19/07/2016

The last thing residents of Cuba want is a return to the bad old days of random power cuts.

Cuba has been warned to brace for higher numbers of power cuts, just as the country is facing a surge in international travellers.

Economics Minister Marino Murillo told Cuba this week there were problems with the energy companies' capacity.

Although he avoided mentioning the dreaded words "power outages", he sent a clear warning that energy-saving measures were necessary as a reliance on imported oil from crisis-hit Venezuela and an increase in demand have led to an apparent energy crunch on the communist island.

"These provisions will prevent blackouts or any impact on basic services," Murillo promised at a meeting of the National Assembly's economic commission.

His comments were an effort to keep people calm in the absence of official information and confirmed recent warnings by public sector workers that their workplaces had seen cutbacks in electricity usage of 50 per cent.

"I don't want to think blackouts could return when we have this terrible heat," Maydellis, who didn't want to give his surname, told DPA on the way out of a government building in Havana.

"From 7am there's no electricity at home. The electric company says it's because of maintenance work," said one pensioner sitting on a bench near the famous Melia Cohiba hotel, which thanks to its own power generator, hasn't been affected.

Despite the anxiety of some Cubans, experts say the island is a long way from experiencing another "Special Period", the name given to the economic crisis Cuba suffered in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba lost its main fuel supplier overnight and the whole country had power cuts most of the day.

"As for this whole phenomenon of fuel cuts and energy cuts, this country cannot go through another year like 1993 or 1994 unless we want to see protests in the street," warned Karina Marron, assistant director of Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's communist party, last week.

Marron was referring to the protests in August 1994 on the famous Malecon, Havana's seaside promenade, which were extinguished after the personal intervention of then president Fidel Castro.

"Now there is no Fidel to go out and do that again, no public figure who can explain to the country what is happening. Today it will be much harder to manage," Marron said during a meeting of the union of Cuban journalists attended by first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The current socioeconomic situation in Cuba is much better than it was in the 1990s. The economy has diversified markets and foreign currency earnings from sectors like tourism. But any cuts are happening at a time of raised expectations of economic improvement among the population because of thawing relations with the United States.

The number of American travellers to Cuba rose 84 per cent for the first half of the year compared with the same January-June period in 2015, since US President Barack Obama loosened "people-to-people" cultural and educational visits to Cuba.

The economic reforms implemented by Cuban president Raul Castro have meant a 30 per cent jump in energy consumption in the last five years because of an increase in small businesses, like bars and restaurants, and because families are using new household appliances.

Cuba's oil demand is at 140,000 barrels a day, of which it produces 50,000 and imports 90,000 from Venezuela at a special price in exchange for Cuban doctors.

Venezuelan oil is also resold by Cuba to other countries in exchange for foreign currencies.

But Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's political crisis has created uncertainty in Cuba and anxiety that one day - without its ally - the supply of oil at preferential rates will come to an end.

"At current oil prices, that deal is worth 1.3 billion dollars. If Cuba loses it, it will have to buy crude oil on the international market," Jorge Pinon, a professor at the University of Texas, told dpa.

"The island is totally dependent on energy from fossil fuels with just 4 per cent of its production coming from renewable energy," said Pinon, who is also an expert in energy studies in the Caribbean.

By the year 2030, the Cuban authorities want to generate 24 per cent of energy from renewable sources but that would require new infrastructure and foreign investment.

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