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Cuba's oil fire is contained — but the disaster has sparked U.S.-Cuba diplomatic flames

CubanMexicanFirefightersMatanzas.jpeg
AP
Cuban and Mexican firefighters battle the Matanzas oil facility blaze this week.

The Matanzas oil facility blaze promises even worse energy hardship for Cubans — and their regime is criticizing the U.S. for not doing more to help put it out.

Cuba has finally contained the massive oil fire that started last week in Matanzas — but the disaster has now sparked diplomatic flames between Cuba and the U.S.

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It took five days to put out the blaze that consumed four oil storage supertanks in Matanzas after a lightning strike last Friday night. Two firefighters are reported dead and 14 are missing. Potentially tens of millions of gallons of oil were lost — most of which would have been used to power Cuba’s decrepit electrical grid.

That means the island can expect even more and lengthier power outages during the tropical summer heat. Cuba was already dealing with a sharp energy and economic crisis. Now its communist regime may have its hands full keeping public anger from erupting in the streets the way it did last summer.

As a result, Cuban officials are criticizing the U.S. for not lending more help to fight the Matanzas fire. The U.S. says it gave technical support; but it insists Cuba never asked it for help like equipment or people. Cuba says Washington should have realized its general call to the international community for material help included the U.S.

"We requested international assistance, but until now, the U.S. has taken the decision to offer [only] technical consultation by phone," Cuba's foreign ministry tweeted while also posting its oft-repeated complaint that Cuba's difficulties (in this case containing the fire) are a result of the U.S. economic embargo.

The Biden Administration says protocol requires more specific communication than what Havana was sending it. And some Cuba critics suggest the regime was being intentionally opaque because it really didn't want to accept more concrete help from a foe like the U.S., wanting to rely instead on allies like Venezuela and Mexico.

Other observers, like Cuba expert Dan Whittle of the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, say it's frustrating the two countries couldn't cooperate better in this instance "because they do conduct bilateral efforts like oil spill containment drills."

Either way, critics of both governments say the dispute is a classic, if not disappointing, example of the dysfunctional U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.