September 10, 2012

Cuba recovers from blackout that left 5 million in the dark

An estimated five million people left without electricity Sunday night. Electricity was restored Monday.

Electricity was still being restored Monday to an estimated five million people in Havana and the western half of Cuba after a massive blackout that underlined the precarious state of the island’s power grid and reportedly sparked rumors of a government collapse.

Cuban authorities gave no detailed explanation for the blackout, issuing only a 66-word communiqué reporting that there had been an “interruption” in a high-voltage line near Ciego de Avila, 250 miles west of Havana.

The outage that hit shortly after 8 p.m. Sunday blacked out about five million people in Havana and from Villa Clara to Pinar del Rio provinces. Most of the area had power back after about five hours, although some parts of Havana were not restored until 9 a.m. Monday.

Brief blackouts also were reported at different times in the eastern provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, and it was not clear if they were linked to the outage in western Cuba.

Island residents have been reporting a growing string of blackouts this summer as the power generation and distribution network continues to erode from decades of mismanagement and lack of investment.

The Canada-based Sherritt International Corp., Cuba’s largest private foreign investor, noted in its annual report this February that its share of the island’s electricity generation would drop by 11 percent this year.

Cuba’s government-controlled media has repeatedly reported on the growing theft of cables and girders from transmission towers. And the state power monopoly, the Electric Union, reported in July that “electrical fraud” tripled from 8,359 in 2005 to 27,470 last year.

Blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote in her Generacion Y web page on Monday that the latest blackout, clearly one of the largest to hit Cuba in years, and the lack of timely official information on its extent or causes had provoked a string of fears and rumors.

“More than half the worried people who phoned me during the darkness linked what happened to a problem in the government,” Sanchez wrote. “Phrases like ‘this has collapsed,’ were repeated everywhere. This shows the political and social fragility of a nation where a blackout … can lead its citizens to believe the entire system collapsed. Significant, no?”

Dissident journalist Roberto de Jesús Guerra said a State Security agent who monitors his activities telephoned him Sunday night to warn that he “would be held responsible for whatever happened” as a result of his Tweeter reports on the blackout.

Guerra, a member of the Hablemos Press news agency, told El Nuevo Herald Monday that he had also received a summons to appear the same day in a State Security office near his Havana home.

Government-run television and radio stations continued with their normal programming during the blackout, and broadcast the first official word on the outage at around might Sunday.

Massive blackouts hit Cuba repeatedly in the first half of the 1990s, after the collapse of Soviet subsidies cut the supplies of fuel and spare parts for the island’s generating plants. Cheap oil sent by leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has largely covered the shortages since then.

Cuba has 17 generating plants with a maximum capacity of 3,267 megawatts, although both the plants and the distribution networks break down often because of the aged machinery and other equipment.

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