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Latin America Report

Did U.S.-Cuba dysfunction prevent a quicker end to the Matanzas oil fire disaster?

Ismael Francisco
Oil storage tanks explode earlier this month at the Matanzas Supertanker Base in Cuba after a lightning strike.

After the catastrophic fire at a Cuba oil storage facility last week, a diplomatic debate is still smoldering over whether the U.S. should have lent more help to contain it — but also whether Cuba should have requested U.S. help more directly.

And it raises larger questions about when U.S.-Cuba dysfunctions need to be set aside.

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Looking at videos Cubans posted on Twitter that capture the apocalyptic explosions of oil storage tanks in the coastal city of Matanzas, you can see why it took five days to contain the blaze — especially since Cuba’s deep economic crisis has left it with less capacity to tackle disasters like it.

Two Cuban firefighters were killed in the inferno; 14 others are missing and are presumed dead. Scores of people were injured. Because the island’s electricity is largely fueled by oil, Cubans are now bracing for even more power outages in the summer heat. And while they're especially exasperated with their communist regime right now, many are also wrestling with feelings of frustration about the U.S.

READ MORE: Is U.S. investment in Cuban capitalism bad for Cuban communism? Or a lifeline?

“I think everybody in Cuba has the impression that the U.S. really didn’t want to help,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban ambassador who monitors the hostile U.S.-Cuba relationship closely.

Speaking from Havana, Alzugaray said Cubans — in particular their government — are asking why the U.S. didn’t send more assistance to fight the fire, which Cuban officials say started the night of Aug. 7 after lightning struck one of the Matanzas Supertanker Base's eight tanks and then spread over the next few days to three more.

“Many people are very frustrated, very disappointed," he said, "because they expected more.”

Everybody in Cuba has the impression that the U.S. really didn’t want to help...I think the U.S. is paralyzed on Cuba.
Carlos Alzugaray

The Biden Administration did give Cuba technical consulting support — because, it says, Cuban officials did ask for that. But it insists Cuba never asked it for material help like equipment and personnel that might have helped contain the fire more quickly.

Cuba, however, insists Washington should have known that its general, international call for that material help included the U.S. — especially since the U.S. is only 90 miles away.

Mexican firefighters help Cubans battle the Matanzas oil facility blaze last week.

“The U.S. could have said to Cuba, ‘Listen, guys, we’ll continue having our arguments after this,'" Alzugaray argued, "'but right now we are moving one of our firefighting vessels towards Matanzas.’”

A lot of veteran U.S. diplomats disagree. They blame Cuba for not directly asking the U.S. for more concrete firefighting aid — especially given the dangerous complexities of battling a fierce oil facility conflagration.

“Putting out an oil storage facility fire is very specialized — it's not like putting out a house fire," said James Cason, a former de facto U.S. ambassador to Cuba and the former Republican mayor of Coral Gables.

"If they had asked us specifically for 250 meters of hose with 2 million gallons of foam, we would have gone to great lengths to provide it. But it sounds like the Cubans dropped the ball in that respect.”

Asking the gringos

Cason had an often contentious relationship with the Cuban regime. But he points out because Cuba is the hemisphere’s anti-U.S. standard-bearer, it all too often feels it has to project the image it doesn’t need American help.

“To get it from us it would look like, ‘Oh, y’know, we had to ask the gringos,’" Cason said.

"They never like to ask us for something. Inside the regime it doesn't go down well. They think it makes them look bad."

If the Cubans had asked us specifically for 250 meters of hose with 2 million gallons of foam, we would have gone to great lengths to provide it. But it sounds like the Cubans dropped the ball.
James Cason

Even Cuban Revolution supporters like Alzugaray admit that can be a flaw in Cuba’s m.o. Still, he argues the regime is more wary of approaching the U.S. after the Trump Administration effectively froze bilateral relations — while re-tightening the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba — and because it feels the Biden Administration has yet to really thaw them again.

“Can you blame the Cubans for being very apprehensive?" Alzugaray said. "I think the U.S. is paralyzed on Cuba.”

Or the U.S. is just fed up, as it watches the Cuban regime ramp up its repression after the historic anti-government protests that erupted across the island last year.

Either way, others say the lingering animosity makes it all the more important the two sides open communication at least to confront humanitarian emergencies like Matanzas.

Photos of 12 of the 14 Cuban firefighters missing and presumed dead in the Matanzas oil fire.

“When you stop talking to each other, it’s very hard to start that dialogue again," said Vicki Huddleston, another former de facto U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

"And I think that’s what happened here with this huge environmental disaster.”

The U.S. and Cuba do have cooperation protocols in place, like the one renewed in 2017 to manage mishaps like oil spills in the Florida Straits. Huddleston feels Matanzas is a reminder not to let politics interfere with them — especially the politics of South Florida, where many Cuban exiles oppose any engagement whatsoever with Cuba.

Matanzas "just shows why [the protocols] are needed," Huddleston said. "It seems to me a no-brainer a Cuban oil spill would be of immense interest to the United States, and vice versa.”

In the end, Cuba did get material help from other countries, especially Mexico and Venezuela, to put out the Matanzas oil fire. And U.S. observers like Cason say that may have been the best course for Cuba to take: because Mexico and Venezuela have state-run oil companies, their governments could perhaps muster a boots-on-the-ground response faster than Washington could have marshaled the U.S.'s private-sector resources.

Still, the tragedy is weighing heavily on the island. Some of the 14 Cuban firefighters missing and presumed dead, for example, were teenagers — 17 to 19 years old — finishing their military service.

They reportedly had little if no actual firefighting experience.

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