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Cuba still battles its Matanzas oil blaze, but the U.S. says Havana has not requested material help

Helicopters pour water on the massive oil storage facility fire in Matanzas, Cuba, on Monday.
Ismael Francisco
Helicopters pour water on the massive oil storage facility fire in Matanzas, Cuba, on Monday.

The oil facility fire that started Friday night spread to more storage tanks on Tuesday, threatening to make Cuba's summer energy crisis even more dangerous.

The massive oil fire in Matanzas, Cuba, spread to another storage tank on Tuesday — and as officials reported at least one person is dead and 14 still missing, a big question that remained was whether the U.S. will step in to help combat a disaster that could make Cuba’s fuel crisis even more dangerous.

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The blaze was set off by lightning Friday night and has ravaged four of the eight oil storage tanks at the Matanzas Supertanker Base. Cuban officials said firefighters from Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela have now begun to control it. But thick black clouds still billowed over the area 60 miles east of Havana.

Over the weekend, the U.S. reportedly offered at least technical support, and Cuba accepted it. But the U.S. says Cuba has not requested material help — despite the fact that the island is also battling a long and severe economic crisis.

“This is unprecedented, and the Cubans simply don’t have all the resources at hand to contain such a massive fire," said Dan Whittle, a Cuba expert at the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

"And the neighbor who’s closest and has the greatest resources is the U.S.”

Whittle said because so much of the oil at the Matanzas facility is distributed to electricity plants around Cuba, the disruption may subject Cubans to even more dangerous blackouts during the summer heat.

“This is a serious humanitarian and ecological crisis," he said.

"It’s going to take a while to fix, but it’s only a temporary fix; it’s truly only a band-aid. Cuba has a plan to move away from fossil fuels, but they still have a long way to go.”

Chronic power outages last summer helped spark historic protests against Cuba’s communist regime.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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