April 1, 2023

A fire at a large oil storage facility in the Cuban port of Matanzas has spread out of control, with explosions and flames injuring at least 121 people and leaving 17 firefighters missing, authorities said Saturday.

At the Matanzas Supertanker Base, a storage terminal, is located near one of Cuba’s most important power plants, about 50 miles east of the capital, Havana.

Authorities said the blaze was ignited by a flash of lightning during a storm on Friday night. More than 1,900 residents and workers were evacuated, and at least eight were seriously injured. The Communist Party newspaper Gramma said authorities had no news about the missing firefighters late Saturday.

Authorities said the fire caused multiple large explosions. Smoke and smells of burning fuel reached the island’s capital, residents said on social media.

“We are working hard under very difficult conditions,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted. “It may take some time to put out the fire.”

The terminal is the only one on the island equipped with large tankers. It’s also where Cuban-produced crude oil is stored, blended and transported to other power plants that power the grid, said Jorge Pinion, a Cuban and energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s the center of Cuba’s infrastructure,” he said. Mr Piñón added that Cuba could be forced to shut down its oil production, estimated at around 40,000 barrels per day, if there is widespread damage to the terminals.

The U.S. State Department said it had provided technical assistance, for which Mr. Diaz-Carnell thanked him. Cuban authorities said Mexico and Venezuela, which have large state-owned oil industries, were among the countries that provided aid on Saturday.

The communist island is already grappling with an energy crisis, including fuel shortages and power outages caused by poorly maintained aging power plants. Power outages in parts of the island lasted up to 12 hours, causing food to spoil during the sweltering summer months and as residents grappled with widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic goods. In major cities such as Havana, hour-long programmatic blackouts were also recently implemented.

A year after mass demonstrations swept the country, the energy crisis and deep economic contraction are fueling social unrest.

“It’s a gut punch after another,” said Miguel Bustamante, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.

Local authorities said Saturday that the Antonio Guiteras power plant had enough fuel to last 48 hours as water pumping at the Matanzas terminal had stopped.

“If that plant were to stop, it’s hard to imagine what would happen to the entire grid on the island,” Mr Bustamante added.

This is the second major disaster to hit Cuba in recent months. In early May, a gas explosion at the Saratoga Hotel in Havana killed 46 people and injured dozens more, just days before the well-known state-run hotel reopened after a renovation.

Dire economic conditions and continued political repression have forced tens of thousands of Cubans to immigrate to the United States over the past year.

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Despite a crackdown on protests last year, there have been more than 40 spontaneous demonstrations since mid-June demanding the restoration of electricity services and civil rights, according to estimates by Inventario, an online publication that monitors Cuban data and social media.

Internet connections were cut during the protests to prevent residents from immediately sharing videos and images on social media aimed at promoting participation. More than 26 people were detained by security forces during recent protests, according to Justicia 11J, a Cuban civil society group that tracks detentions in the country.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com and Santiago Pérez at santiago.perez@wsj.com

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