Cuban leader blames Trump for oil shortages, announces more austerity measures

Castro warns Cubans: a dire economic crisis might be on its way

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, head of the Communist Party, warned Cubans to brace for an economic crisis during a speech on April 10, 2019.
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Cuban leader Raúl Castro, head of the Communist Party, warned Cubans to brace for an economic crisis during a speech on April 10, 2019.

U.S. sanctions designed to halt Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba have provoked a shortage of diesel on the island this month, Cuban ruler Miguel Díaz-Canel said in a TV appearance Wednesday as he announced measures to save fuel and possible cutbacks in transportation and electricity.

With an unusual level of detail, Díaz-Canel revealed that no oil shipments were due to arrive in Cuba Sept. 10-14. One shipment of fuel will arrive the 14th, he said, and “the next shipment arrives at the end of September.”

But he added that the problem is temporary. “The good news is that the October contracts are already negotiated,” he said.

Díaz-Canel said the government nevertheless will slow or halt economic activities and will adjust working hours to save diesel, the fuel used to generate electricity during peak demand periods, and avoid power blackouts.

“If we have to turn off the power, we will announce it,” he said, “although it will never be as long or as intense as during the Special Period.”

The crisis in Venezuela and mounting sanctions by the U.S. government had pushed the island to the brink of a new Special Period, the economic crisis during the early 1990s that many Cubans remember for the significant shortages of food and transportation and long power outages.

Díaz-Canel spent several minutes arguing that the current situation is not the same as the Special Period because the island now produces enough crude to meet 40 percent of its domestic demand, has a strong tourism industry and investment partners from the European Union, China and Russia.

But he repeatedly referred to the Special Period as “a valuable arsenal” of experiences on how to confront “difficult circumstances together with the people.”

Shortages of gasoline and power blackouts on the island have been growing since July, and the government rationed the sale of liquefied gas in August.

Energy Minister Raúl García said supplies of natural and liquefied gas have not been affected. The minister of the economy insisted that gasoline stations would have diesel available. And the Transportation minister said there would be cuts in train and bus schedules.

Díaz-Canel spent nearly 20 minutes of his TV speech blaming the Trump administration for the fuel shortage. The U.S. government, he said, has a “genocidal, vulgar [plan] … to diminish the people’s quality of life, accuse the [Cuban] government of being inefficient … provoke a social explosion … and force us to make political concessions.”

“They are also using blackmail. They have sent us messages, proposing a possible reconciliation in exchange for … throwing 60 years of Cuban revolution into the garbage,” he said. “Trump has failed in his effort to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution, and that’s why he’s taking it out on Cuba.”

U.S.-Cuba relations have deteriorated since Havana made it clear that it would continue supporting Nicolás Maduro, no longer recognized as president of Venezuela by the United States and more than 50 other countries. The United States accuses Cuba of providing Maduro with intelligence and security assistance critical to his ability to remain in power.

The Trump administration has been specially focused on trying to interrupt Venezuelan oil shipments to the island, at subsidized prices under an agreement signed by Hugo Chávez and Maduro. The steep drop in production at PDVSA, down to barely 712,000 barrels per day, as well as U.S. sanctions on shipping companies that deliver oil to Cuba appear to be behind the measures announced Wednesday.

Cuba still receives an estimated 35,000 to 55,000 barrels a day from Venezuela, but needs at least 130,000 barrels to meet domestic demand.

Raúl Castro, who handed over the government to Díaz-Canel in 2017 but remains head of the ruling Communist Party, warned Cubans in April to prepare for “difficult times.”

Díaz-Canel concluded his address, before a studio audience of cabinet ministers and other senior government and party figures, with the words, “These are times of Fatherland or Death.” Applause followed.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres