At least one senior Cuban government official has expressed frustration over the lack of U.S. support to help put out a deadly fire that began Friday at a large oil storage facility in Matanzas, causing multiple explosions and releasing a toxic cloud of smoke that spread to it. It spreads over 65 miles.
One firefighter died due to an explosion in a second tank on Saturday, and according to government reports, 14 firefighters are missing. About 125 people were injured.
The United States offered Cuba technical assistance over the phone but did not provide any financial support.
“So far the US has offered a phone number to an emergency local authority. We accepted, Cubitt [Cuba’s state-run oil company] He made the phone call, had a good talk and the boss Tweet embed & Deputy Minister Tweet embed Thanks for the technical advice. The rest is the same old American Abyss saying/working,” Johanna Tablada, deputy director of American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
While Cuban officials have expressed gratitude for the technical advice on social media, they have also consistently indicated that this is all they have received from Washington.
A State Department spokesperson said: “We have had public discussions with the government of Cuba about this tragic disaster. However, the government of Cuba has not formally requested the assistance of the US government.”
But a high-ranking Cuban official told NBC News that they had made an “urgent appeal to the international community for help,” rather than seeking support from individual countries.
“The State Department has determined that what it might consider providing is technical advice,” the official said.
Cuba has been in contact with private US companies that specialize in handling industrial fires, according to the official, who noted that the two governments discussed possible US approval needed for Cuba to contract and pay for their services.
The United States has imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the communist-run island for decades, and a State Department spokesperson emphasized that the ban includes a general authorization for transactions related to humanitarian projects, which covers, among other things, disaster preparedness, relief and response.
“We are closely monitoring the situation, including any humanitarian needs that may arise, and have provided technical guidance to the government of Cuba. US firefighting experts with experience in handling oil storage facilities have spoken to Cuban officials to provide technical advice,” the spokesperson said. official added.
The fire started Friday night after lightning struck one of the eight tanks at the facility. Three large oil tanks have collapsed since Friday, causing the oil spill to catch fire.
In Miami, home to the largest Cuban community outside the island, several activists have for days called on the State Department to do more to help fight hell.
Salome Garcia, co-founder of Justicia 11J, an organization that tracks arrests in the wake of historic anti-government protests in Cuba last summer. We also called for transparency in the steps being taken.”
The dangerous cloud of smoke that has engulfed the region extends to the capital, Havana, some 65 miles away, and is home to 2.2 million people. Smoke contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other hazardous substances. The Ministry of Public Health and the Cuban Red Cross have warned residents not to wear masks and to stay indoors.
The fire now threatens to deepen the already existing energy crisis on the island. Most Cubans experience blackouts during the hot summer months. The Port of Matanzas is the country’s largest port that receives crude oil, which is then converted to thermal power plants that produce electricity.
Echoing Tablada’s frustration with the US response, a second high-ranking Cuban official said the technical support over the phone “is exactly what they offered, plus our condolences we appreciate”.
“When we asked government officials or private individuals about our needs, we made it clear that the main need was to put out the fire,” the official said.
The governments of Mexico and Venezuela sent teams to help fight the fire.
Four flights from Mexico arrived in Cuba on Saturday loaded with water cannons and 82 volunteers, including military and oil experts equipped with products. A Navy ship carrying aid sailed towards Matanzas on Tuesday.
Venezuela sent 35 volunteers, including firefighters and technicians from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, SA, along with 20 tons of foam and other chemicals.
The Chinese Red Cross is sending aid to Cuba to help with rescue and recovery operations, according to the Matanzas provincial government.
“The disaster in Matanzas is getting worse by the minute, and the threats to public health and safety are dire,” said Danielle Whittle, director of the Caribbean Environmental Defense Fund. “In 2017, the United States and Cuba signed several bilateral agreements that promise cooperation in moments like these. These agreements are still valid.”
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