CubaBrief: Why isn’t Cuba treated like a dictatorship? Is Cuba a failed state? Havana hasn’t formally requested help from the U.S. for the Matanzas fire.

Cuban voices are declaring Cuba a failed state in the midst of a major fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base that began on August 5, 2022 and over the next four days has spread out of control engulfing four tanks at the storage facility.

In the midst of the unfolding disaster, the Cuban government continues with a focus on optics and propaganda, in some cases delaying help to confront the crisis. Stephen Gibbs, the Latin American correspondent for The Times tweeted on August 7th, “Mexican firefighters arrive in Cuba. Are the speeches really necessary? Isn’t this an emergency?”

One of the posts that drew outrage among Cubans, was self-described entrepreneur and Fidel Castro’s grandson, Sandro Castro, posting video of himself driving to Matanzas with a caravan of “entrepreneurs”
to “give support to the people.”

Today, Local 10’s Hatzel Vela pressed Cuban government representatives, who were criticizing the United States for not offering concrete assistance, to outline what Havana had requested. Only to learn that they had not made a formal request to the United States.

Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

The charge that Cuba is a failed state is not only due to the raging fire in Matanzas, and poor response but also two other recent incidents that call attention to systemic regime failures.

Cuban government officials decided early on in the COVID-19 pandemic that they wanted to be “be the first country in the world to vaccinate their whole population with their own vaccines,” and were willing to let Cubans die while they developed their domestic vaccines instead of importing them, including from their allies Russia and China in order to advance their “healthcare superpower” narrative.

The Economist on August 3, 2022 published “Covid-19 has damaged the reputation of Cuban health care: The country’s once-famed health system is in tatters.” In the United States, which had well publicized challenges and failures during COVID-19, excess deaths were 354/100,000. While Cuba, which was touted as a success story, had a far worse outcome then the United States with 550/100,000 excess deaths. Costa Rica, by comparison, had better outcomes than both Cuba and the United States with 194/100,000 excess deaths.

The Hotel Saratoga opened in 1890, and like much of the rest of commercial property in Cuba was seized by the Castro regime, and taken over by the military. On May 6, 2022 the historic hotel exploded and over 40 Cubans were killed in what officials said was caused by a gas leak, It was managed by the military-owned Gaviota tourism company.

The absence of critical voices, and scrutiny does not help. Dissidents who speak out are jailed, or forcibly exiled. Journalists and authors that provide accurate reporting are barred from the island.

A clue to why Anthony DePalma was recently denied entry into Cuba can be found in Tim Stanley’s August 7, 2022 review in The Telegraph, “Why don’t we treat Cuba like a regular dictatorship?” of Elizabeth Dore’s How Things Fall Apart, in which he references Anthony DePalma’s The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (2020). “Part of Cuba’s tragedy, DePalma argues, is the character of its people: they think they’re the best, even when their country is at its worst, hence they rarely demand the change they deserve. ‘There must be a measure of vanity in a people willing to overlook the fact that it is almost impossible to get ibuprofen or lice shampoo in a Cuban pharmacy whilst boasting Cuba is a global medical power.’”

On July 15, 2021 President Joe Biden gave the following description of Cuba that some disputed at the time.

“Cuba is unfortunately a failed state and repressing their citizens. There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government. For example, the ability to send remittances back to Cuba. We would not do that now because the fact is it’s highly likely the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it.”

The past year has demonstrated that the assessment made by President Biden was accurate.

Local 10, August 9, 2022

Cuba: U.S. says Cuban government has not formally requested help after massive fire

By Hatzel Vela

The Cuban government has yet to formally request U.S. assistance for the ongoing massive oil storage facility fire in Matanzas, Local 10 learned Tuesday.

Flames engulfed a fourth tank at an oil storage facility in western Cuba on Tuesday as the raging fire consumes critical fuel supplies on an island grappling with a growing energy crisis.

The fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base has killed at least one person and injured 125 others, with another 14 firefighters still missing. It also forced officials to evacuate more than 4,900 people and shut down a key thermoelectric plant on Monday after it ran out of water, sparking concerns about additional blackouts.

According to a National Security Council spokesperson, the U.S. government has had general discussions with the Cuban government on the tragic disaster.

The spokesperson adds U.S. firefighting experts with experience dealing with oil storage facilities have talked to Cuban officials to offer technical advice, but the Cuban government has not formally requested additional assistance.

This is contrary to what at least one high ranking Cuban official has been publicly saying regarding possible U.S. aid.

Johana Tablada, the assistant director of the U.S. office in Cuba’s Ministry of External Relations, took to Twitter to denounce the lack of help from the American government.

On Monday morning, Tablada described it as “the absolute absence of a real aid offer in our daily diplomatic communications where technical assistance was indeed offered and that’s it.”

In another tweet, Tablada added: “The rest is old same U.S. abyss saying/acting.”

When asked several times what aid Cuba asked specifically of the U.S., Tablada did not respond.

On Saturday, when it was evident the fire was out of control, the Cuban government put out calls for international help.

On Twitter, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said he was profoundly thankful for all the messages of solidarity and offers of help and went on to say they welcomed aid from friendly countries.

Hours later, Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel echoed similar sentiments and thanked the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of material aid.

Diaz-Canel went on to thank the U.S. for their “technical guidance.”

Since the fire broke out Friday, Cuba has received help from Venezuela and Mexico. On Monday, government officials celebrated the arrival of a Mexican ship. Mexico is reportedly sending two navy ships loaded with food and supplies to Cuba.

The Mexican military ship Bal 02 arrives to assist with battling a fire at a large oil storage facility in Matanzas, Cuba, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. The fire was triggered by lighting striking one of the facilitys eight tanks late Friday, Aug. 5th. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“[The fire] is too hard to control,” Diaz-Canel told state run media. “In Cuba, we don’t have the means or technology required.”

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, a vice minister in Cuba’s Ministry of External Relations, also publicly thanked the U.S. for the messages of condolences and its offers on technical guidance the fire. Added the technical guidance were accepted and that both governments were communicating.

The Washington Post, August 9, 2022

Raging fire consumes 4th tank at Cuba oil storage facility

By Andrea RodrÍguez | AP

August 9, 2022 at 1:33 p.m. EDT

HAVANA — Flames engulfed a fourth tank at an oil storage facility in western Cuba on Tuesday as the raging fire consumes critical fuel supplies on an island grappling with a growing energy crisis.

Firefighters and specialists from Mexico and Venezuela helped fight the blaze in the province of Matanzas with boats, planes and helicopters as they sprayed foam on the containers, a first for crews since broiling temperatures had prevented them from doing so earlier.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said crews have taken control of the area where the fire is burning and are taking further steps to quell it.

“They are not easy tasks,” he said. “It is an intense and complex incident.”

The fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base has killed at least one person and injured 125 others, with another 14 firefighters still missing. It also forced officials to evacuate more than 4,900 people and shut down a key thermoelectric plant on Monday after it ran out of water, sparking concerns about additional blackouts.

Those injured were treated mostly for burns and smoke inhalation. More than 20 remain hospitalized, with five of them in critical condition.

“This situation has us very worried at the moment because there are problems with electricity, with the environment, with the people who are still living here,” said Adneris Díaz a 22-year-old cafe owner.

The eight-tank facility plays a crucial role in Cuba’s electric system: it operates an extensive oil pipeline that receives Cuban crude oil that is then ferried to thermoelectric plants that produce electricity. It also serves as the unloading and transshipment center for imported crude oil, fuel oil and diesel.

The facility caught on fire late Friday after lightning struck one of its tanks, sparking several explosions as it spread over the weekend. The first tank was at 50% capacity and contained nearly 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) of fuel. The second tank was full.

Officials have yet to provide an estimate of damages.

The blaze comes just days after the government announced scheduled blackouts for the capital of Havana amid a sweltering summer.

“The economic effects are clear,” said Tahimi Sánchez, a 48-year-old cafe owner. “They are there, we will notice them and we will see them, but we are confident, and we are going to come out of all this well.”


Associated Press videographer Osvaldo Angulo in Matanzas, Cuba, contributed.

The Telegraph, August 7, 2022

Why don’t we treat Cuba like a regular dictatorship?

Elizabeth Dore’s How Things Fall Apart shows Cuba’s ‘poor but equal’ claim is a fantasy. So why are we still taken in?

By Tim Stanley 7 August 2022 • 11:00am

Of all the communist dictatorships, the one that enjoyed the best PR was Cuba. Here’s the popular story. The revolution in 1959 attempted to create a non-bureaucratic “tropical socialism”, which had its ups and downs but saw off the Yanks and elevated its people. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cubans kept going because Fidel Castro was so admired – and when millions of tourists visited the country from the 1990s onwards (me among them), we found a country that we believed was poor yet equal, with world-class schools and hospitals. To this very day, Cuba is not treated like a regular dictatorship. It is an experiment in fairness: we owe it a chance.

Elizabeth Dore’s How Things Fall Apart deconstructs this fantasy through the oral histories of Cubans who had the misfortune to live through it – and reveals that they, too, have a story about Cuba that is unreliable in its own way. “If you were a Cuban born on the island in the vicinity of 1975,” she writes, “you grew up with a promise of equality. You remember watching your classmates eat identical sandwiches, and feeling: ‘We are all part of the whole.’ ” Fidel was committed to creating a classless society, and as Cuba moved closer to the USSR, many of Dore’s subjects – a mix of black and Hispanic, party faithful and dissidents – fondly recall a standard of living that was basic but comfortable, the shops packed with shoes and sweets. “We lived well,” remembers Juan Guillard Matus, “everything was in reach.”

Then the USSR collapsed. Fidel did not survive on charm alone (he shot a few people, too).The United States tightened its blockade, and as the economy collapsed, Castro announced a Special Period, which combined grinding austerity for citizens with a campaign to encourage foreigners to visit and spend dollars (at the same time as dissidents were permitted to leave).

Crime exploded, along with hunger. “The cats of Havana suddenly disappeared,” recalls Pavel Garcia Rojas. Sex tourism flourished: the head of the socialist scouts at Rojas’s old school retrained as a prostitute. Castro, always an optimist, joked that thanks to Cuba’s excellent teachers, its whores “were the best educated in the world”.

Liberal educational techniques seem to have passed Cuba by. Rojas remembers his school’s discipline and bullying as “barbaric”; another interviewee calls it “violent” and “frightening”. College was free but there were no grants, distinguishing between those who had benefited from the new dollar economy versus the left-behind, a gap that grew wider when Fidel was replaced by his brother Raul.

Not taking it lying down: Fidel Castro after being captured by Mexican authorities Credit: Bettmann

Raul sounds like a contender for leader of the Conservative Party. In 2011, he sacked one million public-sector employees (the figure was reduced to 500,000 when it was obvious the country would explode) and ordered them to start a business. Housing was commercialised. None of this came as a surprise to those who knew him – Raul had formed Cuba’s first trade cartel and sent military officers overseas to learn business management – but the people were shocked when the party literally cut the word “egalitarianism” from its mani­festo, replacing it with “equality of opportunity”.

This was the island’s equivalent of Tony Blair’s Clause 4 moment, though the British far-Left seems curiously unaware of it. Cuba today is not, as it’s British fans think, socialist. Nor is it capitalist. While China and Vietnam, for all their sins, reformed their economies to enrich their people, the Castros only liberalised as much as was necessary to stave off collapse, for this is an old-­fashioned oligarchy that simply wants to stay in power.

Shifts in economic policy reshape character, even memory. When Dore interviewed Mario Sanchez Cortez in 2014, he lamented that the people he’d known as children wanted “to help improve people’s lives”, but that under Raul, “Cubans have become individualistic.” Yet when Dore met him again a few years later, he agreed with Raul’s view that anyone who lives off the state is a “para­site”. As the official ideology changed, Cortez recalibrated his memories to keep up: the Cuba of his childhood shifted from heaven to a fool’s paradise.

Fool’s paradise: a Havana street scene Credit: Matthew Micah Wright

This is where the ambiguities of Dore’s research become interesting: to what extent can we trust what her interviewees tell her, not only because they live under surveillance, but because human beings have a habit of romanticising the past? Olga Betancourt, whose son, ­Alejandro, was diagnosed with ­cancer, says she travelled to Miami in 1995 to secure his treatment. When it was time to go home, leaving the land of plenty for a country on the brink of famine, she says the boy found it “incomprehensible… It was as if I had dragged him out of a palace and brought him to live in a hovel.”

Alejandro contradicts her. “I have no memories of my family facing tremendous difficulties during the Special Period,” he insists; father raised animals, mother grew vegetables. The boy had a Nintendo. Esteban Cabrera Montes, a contemporary, describes the ­Special Period as “the best that had ever happened to him”, because the blackouts allowed him to mix with intellectuals without being watched. The ability of children to grow up in what was objectively a terrible time and remember it fondly prompts us to consider if the golden age of the 1980s has been misremembered, too. Yes, there were goods in the shops, says Rojas, but they were shipped in from Russia to create the illusion of wealth, and the markup was huge.

Montes’s mother took him to Havana to buy shoes – so many to choose from! – but as he was trying on a pair of trainers, she whispered, “I can’t afford them.” After that happened a few times, “I thought to myself, this system sucks.”

Dore died shortly before this book came out. It was her crowning contribution to a growing body of literature on life just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, articulating the experiences of children raised to believe the socialist victory was inevitable, only to see it give way to the most rapacious capitalism. They lived in two different worlds.

The have-nots: three young girls killed by falling balcony in Havana.

This is not my favourite of these studies: Lea Ypi’s memoir of Albania in transition, Free (2021), is stranger and more moving; Anthony DePalma’s The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (2020) is clearer in structure and analysis. Part of Cuba’s tragedy, DePalma argues, is the character of its people: they think they’re the best, even when their country is at its worst, hence they rarely demand the change they deserve. “There must be a measure of vanity in a people willing to overlook the fact that it is almost impossible to get ibuprofen or lice shampoo in a Cuban pharmacy whilst boasting Cuba is a global medical power.”

We talk – interminably – about the curse of nostalgia in Britain, but we have openly dissected and rejected our past in a way that Cubans cannot or else refuse to, as indicated by the lingering appeal of Fidel’s egalitarianism long after the Castros had their own Clause 4 moment. It is a myth sustained by the West, including by Dore, who was only able to conduct these interviews because she enjoyed a degree of trust within the regime. Her final work is compelling, self-aware and as honest as it can be within practical limits, but many readers will find it compromised by the author’s idealism, by her desire to find something good in a society so transparently rotten.

Is it so big a deal that children ate the same sandwiches at school? Is the bar for human progress so low? As the countless Cubans who have escaped to Miami will tell you, it is possible to feed the masses, even get them fat, without recourse to brainwashing and bullets.

How Things Fall Apart is published by Apollo at £25. To order your copy for £27.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books