International solidarity pours in as Cuba copes with major fire at oil facility

Issue 
Matanzas fire Cuba
Cuba is receiving assistance from Venezuela and Mexico to extinguish the blaze, which began on August 5. Image: Peoples Dispatch

Extensive efforts are underway in Cuba to control a major fire that broke out at an oil storage facility in the city of Matanzas. A lightning strike set off a blaze in crude oil storage tank 52 at the Matanzas Supertanker Base on August 5. As at August 8, three out of the eight tanks at the site had collapsed.

Containment operations have been ongoing for days, with critical on-ground assistance and aid provided by Mexico and Venezuela.

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health reported on the morning of August 8 that 125 people had been injured in the fire, including 24 people who remained hospitalized. Seventeen people were being monitored, five were deemed to be in a “critical” condition and two in a “serious” condition. One death has been confirmed so far — that of 60-year old firefighter, Juan Carlos Santana Garrido. Sixteen firefighters remained missing as of August 7.

Declaring that “Cuba is Matanzas”, President Miguel Díaz-Canel and his government has been directly involved in addressing the crisis in the port city. The socialist leader also met with the families of the missing persons at the Velasco Hotel as well as injured people being treated at the Commandante Faustino Pérez provincial hospital.

More than 4000 people living in the vicinity of Matanzas’ industrial area, including around 800 residents from the neighbourhood of Dubrocq, which is located closest to the fire, have been evacuated. Serious concerns have also been raised about the environmental and health impacts of the smoke, which has continued to spread on the north coast and towards the western part of Cuba, reaching areas 100 kilometers away.

Matanzas public health director Luis Armando Wong Corrales said on August 8 that there had been intensive monitoring since the beginning of the fire, and that so far no increase in respiratory or other diseases associated with toxic emissions had been observed in the western part of the country. The environmental ministry (CITMA) confirmed that the fire had caused the emission of polluting substances, however, as of August 7, it did not pose a danger. The health and environment ministries continue to observe the situation.

Emergency response efforts continue

According to Cuba’s state-owned oil company Cupet, storage tank 52 contained around 26,000 cubic meters of crude oil, 50% of its overall capacity, when the fire first broke out. By the morning of August 6, four new explosions were reported in a second of the eight tanks at the site.

At 4pm on August 7, the president of the Provincial Defense Council of Matanzas confirmed that the blaze in the first tank had been successfully extinguished. However, the fire in the second tank, containing around 50,000 cubic meters of oil, continued to burn, with a major explosion reported around 11pm that night. It was confirmed that the second fuel tank had collapsed, after the structure had been on fire for nearly 40 hours.

Matanzas governor Mario Sabines Lorenzo confirmed on August 8 that the explosion had been much stronger than the one that had occurred on August 6 and had caused oil to spill and spread to surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Energy and Mines stated that the situation was “very complex” as the site could not be accessed and explosions continued to occur. However, the Ministry announced that the 225 megawatt Antonio Guiteras Thermoelectric Plant, the largest in Cuba, remained online at 219 megawatts.

Experts worked to extract the fuel from the third tank through the use of trucks and a ship docked near the area.

Response teams in Matanzas continued to try to contain the fire in coordination with experts from Mexico and Venezuela early on August 8, and a 5000 gpm pump, provided by Venezuela, was dispatched to the site that morning, to disperse chemical agents to dissipate the fire.

However, that morning, Lorenzo announced that the third tank had collapsed, after its deck had been compromised by the fuel spillage from the second tank. He added that visibility remained low due to the smoke, however, Air Force helicopters were continuing to pour water to prevent the fire from spreading and a large hydraulic pump and brigades carrying foam had been positioned.

#MatanzasIsNotAlone

Experts from Mexico and Venezuela have continued to assist and participate in firefighting operations in Matanzas. The first plane bringing aid from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela landed at Cuba’s Juan Gualberto Gómez International Airport on August 6. On board were 35 specialist firefighters experienced in highly-complex operations and technical experts from the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. The Venezuelan government also dispatched 20 tons of supplies including foam and chemical powders to be used to extinguish the fire.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reiterated the country's solidarity with Cuba and the people of Matanzas, saying: “Receive the Bolivarian hug, you are not alone!”

Standing with the firefighters outside the Conviasa plane bound for Cuba, Venezuela’s Minister of Petroleum Tareck El Aissami said: “In any circumstance, regardless of the size of the adversity, the sons and daughters of [Hugo] Chavez will always be at the side of Cuba, of its Revolution, of its heroic history.”

A few hours earlier, the first of three assistance planes from Mexico arrived in Cuba, carrying 60 members of the military and 16 technicians and specialists from the state-owned petroleum company PEMEX. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed that personnel from PEMEX, the Secretariat of the Navy and the Secretariat of National Defense would travel to Cuba, during his tour of the state of Colima on August 6.

The Cuban embassy in Mexico expressed its gratitude to the government: “In times of need, the true ties of friendship and solidarity between our peoples are reaffirmed.”

The Cuban News Agency reported that a second plane arrived from Venezuela on August 7, bringing additional experts, 14 tons of foam and five tons of chemical products to assist ongoing efforts. A fifth plane from Mexico carrying humanitarian cargo also landed that day.

Cuba’s transport minister Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila also told reporters that Mexican Air Force ships would continue to operate throughout the night to increase the availability of foam barrels in Matanzas.

Cuba has continued to receive messages of solidarity from countries including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, China, Guyana, Barbados, Iran, Russia and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Ghana provided aid consisting of 23 packages of gloves, syringes and other medical supplies.

End the blockade!

In response to the emergency, the United States offered “technical support”. Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío said the proposal was in the hands of specialists for the due coordination. Meanwhile, the US embassy in Havana also declared that “US law authorizes US entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba”.

Washington has continued to impose an illegal and cruel blockade on Cuba for the past 60 years. In this context, any offerings of assistance are rendered effectively meaningless while the US continues its destabilization agenda against Havana, undermining its sovereignty, and pushing unilateral measures that harm the lives of the Cuban people.

The fire in Matanzas could potentially have an effect on fuel supply to the rest of the country, which could impact electricity supply. US sanctions have already made it difficult to purchase fuel and replacement parts to repair existing power plants.

As such, alongside their efforts to raise funds to secure medical supplies and other resources for the people of Matanzas, groups including CODEPINK, The People’s Forum, and Puentes de Amor (Bridges of Love) have also renewed their calls for the total lifting of the blockade on Cuba.

“Unfortunately, US sanctions on Cuba are the worst of fires," said CODEPINK. “Many organizations cannot afford the costs of expensive lawyers and the long cumbersome processes required in order to provide urgent assistance to Cuba. Also, Cuba’s inclusion in the State Sponsor of Terrorism List means that banks, in both the United States and abroad, are reluctant to process humanitarian donations.”

While the US has claimed that humanitarian aid and trade is exempt from sanctions, the actual process of providing such assistance, as witnessed in other cases, has been heavily restricted by factors including over compliance by third parties.

The call to lift sanctions has also been echoed by other groups, including the Communist Party of France which said “the human toll, the material and ecological damage of the fire” obliged the international community for the “immediate and definitive lifting of the illegal sanctions of the USA”.

[Abridged from People’s Dispatch.]