Liquefied Gas Crisis in Cuba: Back to Charcoal & Firewood?

Photo: elTOQUE.

Liquefied Gas Crisis in Cuba: Back to Charcoal & Firewood?

1 / mayo / 2023

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel here in Cuba. A new fuel crisis has hit the island and gas for cooking, a basic essential in times of blackouts, has gone missing. Meanwhile, Cubans are once again looking for alternative ways to cook their everyday meals.

“Firewood has been our salvation here at home. We bring it from the countryside, preferably dry, because it’s the best to cook with and we don’t bother our neighbors too much with the smoke. It’s pretty much the only alternative we have, and we’ve gradually got used to it,” a resident in Palmira, Cienfuegos, told El Toque.

On April 17, 2023, Vicente de la O Levy, the Minister of Energy and Mines, said that one of the products with low stock availability is domestic fuel. “Some provinces only have stock left for a day, others two. But in the eastern region, for example, gas in CUPET tanks at our bases has already run out.”

Two days before, the local press in Cienfuegos printed information from the Regional Division of Fuel Marketing which announced that April 15, 2023 would be “the last day empty cylinders would be collected at retail points.”

The news rang alarm bells once again for Cubans, who are always on edge and waiting for a new crisis. The uncertainty of liquefied gas customers – over 1.8 million across the country – is growing because using electrical appliances to cook isn’t an option either. On the Liquefied Gas Company’s (responsible for sales in Havana, Artemis and Mayabeque) Facebook page, a customer from Arroyo Arenas demanded information so as not to “line up outside gas stations for the fun of it” or “spend all day waiting for a truck that doesn’t come.”

The lack of statements from authorities, and the Ministry, about a possible time limit for this crisis, is making the population even more anxious. “How do I cook when the gas reserve I have at home runs out?”, is a question people are asking over and over again on social media.

After hearing Vicente de la O Levy’s announcement urging people to save gas at home, one Internet user asked: “How can we save fuel at home under the following conditions?” A) I can’t buy electrical appliances (multipurpose pots, electrical stoves, induction stoves) being sold in the MLC (USD priced) stores, because I don’t earn my wages in MLC, exchange rates are through the roof, etc.” Secondly, he pointed out that blackouts make it impossible to use electrical appliances even when you do have them. “You can’t save anything, you have to die with gas (for the lucky ones who have it),” he explained.

Very few Cubans have the option of buying gas for cooking on the black market because it’s so expensive. On April 10, 2023, “a cylinder of gas [was being sold] for 2500 pesos” in a Facebook group, he says before the shortage was announced. That amount is more than a month’s minimum wage and over half of the average monthly wage.

“It seems the only alternative we have left is to set up a wooden fireplace in your backyard or buy charcoal,” another Internet user added on social media.

“Solutions” in times of crisis

Once again, Cubans are looking for ways to make sure they can cook food. The far-sighted ones are talking about alternatives such as charcoal to tackle the crisis, although they complain about it being very expensive. In Ciego de Avila, Jose Artura prepared himself for this possibility and bought a bag of charcoal for 500 pesos.

Raily Acosta, who has a small pizza business in Cienfuegos, confirms that bags of charcoal “cost 500 pesos,” although prices range between 350-450 pesos in some municipalities in the southern province. In Villa Clara, prices can go as high as 600 pesos on the illicit market and lots of Cubans fear that prices will continue to go up if shortages persist.

Experts in Cuban fields alert us about the raw material used to make charcoal ovens. Farmers in central provinces explained that the best charcoal – the one that lasts the longest – is the marabu one (known as the “aroma one”). The other one they use, called “soplillo” or “whitewood” charcoal, tends to run out quicker.

Petroleros”, ovens inherited from the Special Period 1990s crisis, are another alternative Cubans have found in these pressing times, which has helped them salvage a cooked meal again, even at the expense of their health. However, it’s not a totally accessible option either: the fuel crisis has pretty much put an end to sales of this oil on the illicit market, and it’s only available in rationed shares for state-led companies mostly linked to production and basic services. 

If you’re “lucky” to find this fuel for sale, “prices are through the roof.” A taxi driver in Havana interviewed by El Toque added: “a liter costs 150 pesos or more and gasoline costs 500 pesos, and that’s if you can find it, because that’s a feat in itself!”

Using kerosene – which is another alternative for Cubans when their options for cooking are limited – has also become a luxury most can’t afford.

Firewood is the most viable option for people living in rural areas. A neighbor from Palmira says that it’s common to see “people go out with wheelbarrows looking for sticks they can use to cook or heat up food.”

“We have a wood fired oven at the back of the house and we’re cooking pretty much everything there: we boil root vegetables, beans, and we even cook rice with wood and it’s delicious, I think it’s even tastier than the rice we cook with electricity or gas. We’re used to the smoke, and I think even our neighbors who used to complain about the smoke before now understand our situation,” he says.

“We’ve been creative in how to start up a fire too because we’d use oil or gasoline before, but now with shortages, just imagine. I don’t like to set a plastic bag on fire either because it affects the lungs. We use dry straw, used oil or a drop of fuel, the smear left in the tanks; that’s how we get by.”

The prevailing view seems to be: “there isn’t anything and everything you can find is expensive” and it’s better “to go to the mountain for wood” to cook. Many Cubans in the eastern region agree: “We have to go back to using firewood.”

But firewood isn’t an option for people living in the cities. It isn’t easy to get “dry sticks to burn” and it isn’t convenient or right to burn them inside homes or in public spaces. 

Can we manage these shortages?

Solutions to liquefied petroleum gas shortages in Cuba depends on the arrival of fuel at Cuban ports.

According to government sources, “contacts with international suppliers” continue “to gradually reverse” the fuel crisis. Nevertheless, the Minister of Energy and Mines made it clear that “the situation a few months ago won’t be our reality now in April and May.”

The head of the sector also said, on April 17, 2023, that there would be a short-term solution for liquefied gas, but he didn’t give an exact date. He also specified that gas distribution has been prioritized for key services, such as food processing plants and hospitals.

Later, the Marketing Director at the Cuba Oil Company (CUPET), Lidia Rodriguez, announced on a TV feature that was broadcast on April 24,, that a ship with liquefied gas is expected to arrive in Cuba mid-week. The ship will arrive in Santiago de Cuba and will then go on a tour of other Cuban provinces until it concludes its journey in Havana.

Once again, dates of the arrival of this ship and the schedule for its arrival at different Cuban ports weren’t included in the information Cuban authorities shared. 

Cuba’s new fuel crisis illustrates the Government’s incompetence when it comes to managing resources. For example, investments in the supply of electricity, gas and water only grew 2.6% in 2022, according to figures published by the Cuban Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). Furthermore, different problems with fuel distribution have been reported since August 2022. During this month, lines at retail points in Las Tunas led to local media reports; it also emerged in September 2022, that there was a delay of over six months in the distribution cycle in some municipalities in Artemisa.

This isn’t the first time liquefied gas has been unavailable in 2023. In late February and early March, photos of lines at retail points also flooded social media and led to reports in pro-government media.

The Government can’t find solutions to a recurring problem, that keeps new service contracts on standby, and leads to contracts being bought and sold on the slide for over 30,000 pesos (if the transaction includes other products).

Plus, it’s impossible to replace gas cylinders in poor condition or add new units or cylinders, because of raw material shortages in the state-led sector; and the corruption of gas sales which the Government has complained about.

The reality is that the liquefied gas customers’ demands – which lean towards growth – are unsustainable under the current model, according to official statistics. Depending a great deal on imports, there are risks to managing this resource, which are multiplied when national production is limited and unstable and future fuel prices on the international market are uncertain.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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